Monday, December 29, 2014

How Do We Arbitrate Social Contracts?

I haven't been writing much in my blog this Month.  Since I returned from Easter Island I have been very busy working on the report of my research as well as working on the graduate school application process.  Additionally, there just hasn't been news stories about which I felt I had anything of value to add.  Then I saw a very scary picture yesterday.

Hundreds of NYPD officers turned their backs on mayor de Blasio
The picture that I found scary was one of hundreds of police turning their backs on their mayor.  This image scares me for many reasons.  I will list some of those reasons.

The most basic reason that the picture scares me is that it suggests that the NYPD equates criticism with the assassination of police.  De Blasio joined in criticism of the NYPD when people were protesting the death of a man who was choked to death for selling cigarettes.  Then a lone gunman killed two officers in apparent retaliation.  This image of the police turning their backs on the mayor suggests to me that the NYPD considers any criticism tantamount to endorsing the murder of police officers.

The next reason that this picture scares me is that the image suggests a rift between civilian leadership and police forces.  As those who read my blog are aware, I fear the growing militarization of out nation's police forces.  Civilian control of the US military is a fundamental issue protecting our country against military dictatorship.  Military officers are supposed to remain apolitical and respect civilian leadership because that helps defend our democratic system.  Civilian control of the military also helps to maintain the idea of the military existing to defend the people of the USA, rather than the people existing to support the military.  Military personnel swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution.

Over the past several decades US police forces have increasingly become domestic military forces that owe no allegiance to the US Constitution.  With this image it appears that the NYPD owes no allegiance to the civilian leadership of the city of New York.  The question of who the NYPD serves brings me to the biggest reason that this image scares me.

The image of the NYPD turning their backs on the elected executive of the polity they ostensibly serve causes me to fear that the social contract between the police and the citizenry is broken from both ends.  The protests across our country over the past few months have shown that there were many US citizens, especially people of color, who felt that the social contract between the police and themselves was broken.  Of course most of these protests focused on the police as the source of rupture of trust.  Police supporters essentially responded that the failure was on the part of populations that failed to conform to acceptable social norms (obey the law, don't resist arrest, and you won't have trouble with the police).

While most of my writing on the police in recent months has been critical, my personal biases tend to lie more in line with the police supporters.  I see the police as the good guys (with rare exceptions).  I've known and worked with many police officers.  And I suspect that social groups that are pounded with the message from birth that the police are liable to kill and/or victimize them are going to have a hard time trusting the police and behaving in a truly respectful manner.  If you are convinced that a group of people is out to kill you then fear only motivates you to stay in line until you feel that your time may have come.  People who think the police are out to get them can't truly respect the police on a fundamental level.  So I have tended to view instances of potentially excessive force as driven more by a failure of trust than of actual racism or ill will on the part of the police.

When two police officers were assassinated in New York City the possibility of a severely broken social contract seemed very possible.  It was a lone gunman, but coming against a backdrop of nationwide protests and cries of police racism, it seemed like an increasing number of people were seeing the police as the enemy.  Speaking purely subjectively and anecdotally, in my social circles it has seemed in recent years that almost all discussion of the police has been in terms of opposition.  Of course opposition to, and distrust of, law enforcement has a long history in this country.  During the early years of our nation's history there was no provision for formal police forces.

The process of revolting against British authority had so poisoned the culture in the US against law enforcement that professional law enforcement agencies were scarce across much of the country until very late.  The first municipal law enforcement agency in the US was formed in Boston in 1838, more than a half a century after the Revolutionary War ended, and it wasn't until the 1880's that police forces were ubiquitous even in major cities.  If you want more information on the history of police in the US (including things like the evolution of police in Southern states from the Slave Patrols) then I suggest reading more here.  Suffice to say, in the US, law enforcement was more likely to be conducted by vigilantes or private forces until almost the twentieth century.  But as the US grew, the need for order became increasingly pronounced, but the US has never truly found peace with its peace forces.

Over the past hundred years or so we have become, as a nation, more accepting of the need for law and order; but that acceptance has never truly been unambiguous.  One can contrast the US's history with law enforcement with our neighbors to the north, Canada.  Canada did not have a Wild West the way that the US did.  Canada had organized law enforcement in the form of Mounties.  The US had self appointed "lawmen" who got into shootouts with people they didn't like.  Hark A Vagrant has a very fun comic relating to these historical differences.
I'm sure that the punishments were more severe than sitting in a corner in real life, but the relationship to officers of the law was radically different in Canada and I believe still affects Canadian cultural on a very basic level to this day.
The differences between Canadian attitudes toward the police and US attitudes continues to be pronounced.  When I was living in Canada in 2005 the Mayerthorpe Tragedy occurred.  Four Mounties were killed in the line of duty.  It was a national tragedy.  In Ottawa, where I lived, thousands of miles from where the tragedy occurred, flags were lowered to half-mast.  It was the worst single day loss of life for the RCMP in modern Canadian history.  Even the name "Mayerthorpe Tragedy" speaks to the radically different attitude toward the Mounties.  Mounties are federal police, would the death of four FBI officers be a cause for national mourning?  Mounties are seen as heroes, US policemen are all too often viewed as violent predators.

I don't believe that the difference in the way people in the US and Canada view their law enforcement is because Canadian police are all angels and US police are all devils.  I believe the difference is because the US never truly established a national trust with the forces of law and order, and the uneasy trust that grew over the first half of the twentieth century (especially after the end of Prohibition) has eroded dangerously since the Vietnam war.

Now in a time when police are more militarized than ever, and anti-cop sentiment is a seething current in our country, some people are seeking to wage war on the police.  Two days ago, at the memorial for the two officers killed in New York last week, hundreds of police officers turned their backs to the mayor.  With this gesture the police communicated that they also saw the public, and those who would criticize them, as the enemy.  The NYPD seemed to tell the world that the feeling was mutual.

We cannot repair the relationship with law enforcement if the police see the public they are supposed to serve as the enemy.  But the social contract goes both ways.  We cannot repair the relationship with law enforcement if the public views their protectors as the enemy.  It seems that the social contract between the public and the police has been horribly ruptured, at least in New York, and it is not clear how to repair that trust.

The severity of the fracture of trust is further underscored by another image, also apparently from the memorial two days ago.
But it appears that one officer did not turn his back
And this image might be even scarier.  In a sea of white faces turned away from the mayor, a black officer did not turn his back.  This image seems to simultaneously magnify the severity of the breach of trust represented by the NYPD turning their backs, and to further confirm the perception of the issues as one of race.  The narrative of racism feels like it is acting as a runaway train eradicating any hope of constructive discussion.

Yesterday a story came up on my Facebook feed of a black plainclothes NYPD officer being shot and killed by other NYPD plainclothes officers.  It is a real story, and true, and reported by the New York times, but it is not current.  The story is five years old, and as tragic now as it was a half decade ago.  But such is the power of social media's ability to engage in News Necromancy, that when people get upset about an issue, all the previous stories that confirm a bias can be revivified and made new.

Even the image of the black officer not turning his back has traveled via social media.  I have not been able to find the source of the image.  I don't even know if it is real or if it was taken at the memorial.  But this unattributed image is moving through social media, and while it is a troubling image, it underscores the difficulty facing us if we want to repair our society.

Emotions are running high.  Social media creates an environment where every tragedy gets rolled into every tragedy and it is impossible to parse what is going on.  While emotions run high it is nearly impossible to even try to discuss issues like use of force and institutional racism.  Everyone just yells past everyone else, unhinged individuals assassinate police, and the police set themselves in opposition to civil society.

It is a scary situation.

It is a situation that must be repaired.

But I don't know how to repair this situation.  When a social contract is broken, how can it be arbitrated?  If a contractor breaks a contract they can be sued.  Who can we sue when the public and the police are both in breach of contract with each other?

We need police.  And far more than the individuals in uniform, we need trust in the police.  There will never be enough police to keep everyone in line.  Our society works because we believe in it.  We trust that our system should work.  Laws are obeyed because people agree they should be obeyed.  Even our money only has value because we agree it has value (US currency is fiat money and is intrinsically worthless).  Our entire interconnected world functions because of trust.  That trust is built on order, and in an urban society the municipal police are a fundamental cornerstone of that order.

We cannot, as a society, simply accept the failure of trust in the police.  Nor can we simply blame the collapse of trust on the police.  Police officers daily risk their lives to maintain order, but in order for the police to be able to keep the peace they require the trust of the public.  We all of us, each and every one, bear a share of the burden of keeping our society functioning.

The most concrete suggestion I can offer toward repairing the ruptures in our society is to engage in actual conversation.  Do not demonize police.  Do not demonize minorities.  Do not demonize conservatives.  Do not demonize liberals.  We need to try to find points of agreement and build from there.  If we want a functioning society we have to agree on what constitutes functioning.  If we want police that protect us we need to agree that we want police to exist.

Maybe the first step could be agreeing that we want police to protect us.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fantoni HB 02 Review: First Impressions

I just bought a new knife, a Fantoni HB 02.  Since these sorts of knives always seemed to be photographed with guns I pulled out my Great-great-grandfather's rifle for some of these photos.

This knife is the most expensive knife I have ever purchased, coming in north of $200, but my first impression when I got to hold it was that it is worth the money.

The knife came in a nicely designed box with a foam pad and a card with the details of the knife.  The knife is so light that when I first picked up the shipping box it felt empty.  

When I picked up the knife I was immediately struck by how different it felt from any other pocket knife I've ever owned.  The first thing I noticed (besides the weight) was how intensely grippy the G10 handle scales are.  The titanium frame feels very light, but the knife handle still feels very solid.  The blade blade has zero wiggle.  The lock has no give or wiggle when engaged.  The lock doesn't over or under engage, even when I snap the knife open.

The other thing that I notice is that the detent (the little ball on the liner-lock that engages with the tang of the blade which helps keep the blade from opening accidentally) is really firm on this knife.  So stiff that it's actually a little hard to get the blade open.  The plus side of this is that I really don't think anything is going to make this knife open accidentally.  But I am hopeful that use will make this knife a little easier to open.

The other things that feel potentially problematic on this knife are actually also kind of positives.  The fantastically grippy G10 combined with the very strong pocket clip make this knife a little difficult to get in and out of my pocket.  I'm worried about the amount of wear that this might put on my pants.  I may need to do a little light sanding of the handle scales under the clip.  We will see.

I am looking forward to seeing how this knife performs over the next month or so while I work on my final review for the knife.  I'm not planning on altering anything about the knife until after that.  I am pretty excited about this knife, it is beautiful and feels fantastic.

This knife is full of neat little touches.  If you look closely at the jimping along the handle you can notice that the grooves get deeper the closer they get to the end of the handle.

Speaking of the jimping, the jimping on the thumb ramp is fantastically grippy.  When you place your thumb on the ramp there is zero slipping.

The knife fully opened.  The ink on the pocket clip is actually slightly iridescent.  At some other angles the ink looks very dark, but I didn't like the way any of the photos that showed this turned out.

Another photo that just fits with the normal photo types.  It seems like every review of a knife has this photo.

This photo shows of the centering of the blade.  Right down the middle.

This picture shows some of the other nice subtle touches.  Firstly, the clip is titanium, which is pretty groovy.  You can see the paint on the clip showing up dark in this angle.  The holes in the clip for the screws are beveled so that the screws are countersunk flush.  And one of my favorite subtle touches, the titanium frame is slightly evenly larger than the G10 handle scales.  This provides a little extra grip, but mostly it just indicates that the scales were ground and smoothed separately from the frame, just a nice touch.

Even though this is a fairly small knife, there is enough handle even for someone with fairly large hands like myself.  This isn't the grip that I would normally use obviously, but I just wanted to show how nicely sized the handle was.   But the handle is not so large that one needs large hands for it to be comfortable.
I just love the shape of this blade, and the stonewashed finish on the blade is simply gorgeous.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Kershaw Cryo G10 Review

I have an updated version of this review you can find here.

Kershaw Cryo G10

And here is what the other side looks like when it's closed

I actually wrote most of this review in Easter Island.  I wrote the review to post on Amazon, but I was pretty happy with the review, so I thought I would also post it here on my blog.

I am really debating giving this five stars, but I can't quite do that.  Maybe 4.5 stars.  This knife was not quite exactly what I wanted, but it was as close as I could get for less than $200.  So that makes me pretty happy about the purchase. 

For the price this is an excellent choice.  For the sake of simplicity I will start with the Cons that make this not a 5 star purchase for me.


Too short:

Another quarter inch of blade and handle would make this a much better fit for me.  I have pretty big hands, and this does not fill my hand.
Opening Mechanics:
The assisted open seems unnecessary, it also makes the thumbstuds totally superfluous.  The thumbstuds are a hazard on this knife.  They make it harder to get out of your pocket, tear up the pocket, and if you do try to open the knife with the thumbstuds it is very easy to cut your thumb due to the amount of force needed and the small size of the knife.


Stiff.  Everything about this knife is stiff out of the box, and use doesn’t change that much.  The assisted open is stiff.  The thumbstuds are too stiff to use.  The frame lock is stout and stiff.  But the blade is stiff when deployed.  The stiffness also seems to translate to a solidity when the knife is deployed.  I would ideally like easier deployment, but this is not a big deal on this knife.


Out of the Box Sharpness:

This knife came literally shaving sharp.  I had been working with trees the day it came in the mail and had some pitch in my arm hair, so I decided to see if the knife would shave off the pitch tangled hairs, it did no problem.

Edge retention:

Very good.  I know that 8Cr13Mov is not the most amazing steel, but I have been impressed with its performance on this knife.  I have had this knife for a month and have been using it very heavily and the edge has remained nicely sharp. 

Cutting ability:

I am actually in Easter Island as I write this, and I brought this knife with me since I figured its small size would avoid any legal difficulties for a pocket knife.  I am in a fairly remote location, and the accommodations require we do food prep ourselves, unfortunately all the knives provided were extremely dull, so for the last few weeks I have been using this pocket knife to do all of my cooking on top of regular EDC duty.  This knife has performed far better than I would have expected.  I had already found the knife to be surprisingly good for field duty, I didn’t think it would be any use for the kitchen, but it has performed admirably.  I had not expected to be using this knife so heavily while in Chile, and so I deliberately neglected to bring a whetstone in order to better discuss the edge retention on the review I’ll do on my blog when I get home, so I have been very grateful for how well the edge has stood up to a lot more use than I anticipated.  The edge is not razor sharp any more, but still significantly sharper than any knives available to me here.  It’s still sharp enough to handle tomatoes cleanly without serration, I’d call that usably sharp J
Update:  The edge stayed very sharp until two days before I left Easter Island.  Two days before I left I barbecued.  The cut of meat I barbecued was a big chunk of beef that had a lot of connective tissue and fascia.  I decided to separate the connective tissue.  Trimming the meat off of the connective tissue puts a lot of wear on an edge, so I was not surprised that it really dulled the knife.  The knife was still sharper than anything else in the kitchen afterward, but it had lost the fine edge.  It still cut a tomato, but with a little squishing.  Still for a knife that I bought for less than $40 I think this was tremendous performance and edge retention.


Feels nice in the hand, but light in the pocket.  Good for hiking and everyday activities, but with enough heft to feel right for heavier use than its size might indicate.


Solid.  Rock solid.  If you try to use the thumbstuds the lockup can get sticky because it causes the frame lock to engage late, but with the assisted open the lockup is neither too late nor too early.  It’s like Goldi-Locks, just right.

Grip and Jimping:

The G10 scale gives this knife good grippiness.  Sadly the jimping seems to be more decorative than functional.  The jimping on the blade in particular does not stand out sufficiently from the handle and is not sharp enough to provide good grip.  But the blade is short enough that choking up on the blade is not a real issue.  Still, a nice looking satisfyingly grippy handle.


For the price, this is a hell of a knife.  I strongly recommend it.  Great for Every Day Carry.  I only wish it was a little bigger.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

One Last Easter Island Mystery

And that mystery is of course, where does the time go?  It has been a pretty amazing trip.  I got to look at a lot of lithic debitage, and meet a lot of interesting people.  I'm looking forward to getting home, but it is sad to leave the island.

But I'm pretty sure I'll be back.
This is the Refugio Arquelogico where I stayed

Jose Miguel, my Chilean counterpart while I was herfe, and Jo Anne Van Tilburg, the Boss.  I am very thankful to Jo Anne for giving me the opportunity to come out her and work

And a beautiful Rapa Nui sunset

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Easter Island Mysteries: What happened to the trees?

Anakena, the main beach on the Island.  Quite pretty, there are actually only two small beaches on the island
So what happened to the trees?  This is actually quite the mystery.  No one knows for sure when the last tree died.  No one even knows what trees originally grew on the island.  Were they all palms?  Were there other trees?

The traditional narrative is that the trees were all cut down to make statues.  But even the latest dates for the removal of all the trees on the island (the 1600's is about as late as the guesses get) don't go all the way to the end of the statue making period.  The biggest statues were actually made AFTER the trees were gone.

There is a recent paper that suggests that the trees were all killed by rats.  Most all the archaeologists I've spoken to here don't buy it.  I personally think that a combination of human usage and rat destruction probably accelerated the deforestation, but that only applies to certain palm species.  If there were other kinds of trees then it pretty much has to be human agency that deforested the island.

I heard over dinner the other night that there is potentially some late date wood from a non-palm tree. The stuff is still being studied, but it could actually push the date for deforestation closer to the historic era and indicate other local species besides palms.  The people I've talked to seem convinced that there were multiple species of trees on the island.

So what happened to the trees?  The honest answer is that no one knows for sure, we don't know how many or what kind of trees there were.  It's a mystery.

I jokingly refer to this as my legally mandated photo op

The real mystery, why?  If you look at the side of the mountain you can see little notches and caves, all of those are places where a statue was carved.  Clear up the side of the mountain, and even on top.  The grassy slopes are actually meters deep deposits of stone chips from making the statues.  There are entire statues completely buried under the detritus.  No one knows how many.  Sounds like a job for GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) to me.

I was just proud of this photo of Tongariki I took from Rano Raraku
As an update on my work here, I am enjoying being in the lab.  UNESCO and the Japanese government built a nice fully modern lab at the museum.  I'm doing science and it's fun.  I'm washing and analyzing lots of rocks.  It's pretty fun for me, though maybe not everyone's cup of tea.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

More Mysteries!

I was pretty proud of this picture I took of the Moai on Ahu Tongariki
So today I actually learned about a real mystery, but the mystery was really just a different way of looking at things.  Today I got to know my Chilean counterpart here on the island.  His name is Jose Miguel and he has been doing archaeology and working on the island for decades, he is currently a professor at the University of Valparaiso.  He pointed out that in his opinion the greatest mystery of the island is not how the statues were transported or carved, that stuff is pretty easy to explain, it's pretty much just mechanics.  What is really mysterious is why they carved the statues completely on the sides and top of a mountain, and then took the finished statues to their destination instead of moving less fragile blocks of rock into place and carving them there.  It would have been much easier and safer.

After all, Michelangelo didn't carve statues at the quarry, he carved them in a studio, where it is easier and safer.  A lot of Rapanui died in order to carve the statues in place, and then a lot of the finished statues broke during the transportation process.  It doesn't make much sense.  There must have been a very important reason that they would do all of the work on the mountain except for the eyes before they transported the statues.  Then they took the statues to their ahus, and only then carved out the eyes to give the statues Mana, supernatural power.

Here is me next to one of the wings of Ahu Tongariki for scale.  The thing is huge.  The platform the statues are on in the middle of the Ahu is the length of a football field by itself.

Here's my Moai impression in front of "the giant" this Moai was never completed, but is over twenty meters long

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Mysteries of Easter Island (Kind of)

Well, my reading thus far has revealed one true mystery about Easter Island so far, how many statues are there?  In the 40’s the first attempted count said that there were 600.  But then in the 50’s and 60’s Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition found dozens more than recorded just in the area of the quarry where the statues were made.  According to what I have read the current total stands at 887 of the moai (the big giant heads, that also have bodies underneath with long torsos and arms, with short legs).  But some statues are buried, and there is current work being done to catalog all of the statues.  You might think that it would be easy to count massive multi-ton statues that are taller than a man, but you would apparently be wrong.  The truth is that no one knows exactly how many statues were carved.  I think that’s pretty awesome.

In the area of the quarry, Rano Raraku, there are statues buried underneath the debris created by the making of other statues.  The prehistoric (just a reminder, in archaeology “prehistoric” just means before white people showed up, that’s actually all the word ever means, but it can be confusing.  In Europe and the Middle-East “prehistoric” means thousands of years ago, in North America Prehistoric” means 520 years ago, in Easter Island “prehistoric” means less than 300 years ago).  Rapanui were busy indeed.  It takes some work to bury giant statues under the rubble of other statues.  Especially with stone tools.  The Rapanui changed the shape of a mountain with stone tools and created so many giant statues out of solid rock that to this day nobody knows how many they made or how the mountain might have originally appeared.

A lot of the other mysteries boil down to the twin mysteries of smallpox and slavery.  After contact many of the Easter Islanders succumbed to smallpox.  There were also cases of black-birding, which is what the taking of Polynesians as slaves by European ships was called.  There is debate on how much black-birding there actually was on Easter Island, so it is unclear how much the Pacific slave trade affected population numbers.  But if you have ever wondered what happened to the people that built the statues, smallpox happened.  Having one’s population collapse, and then having survivors stolen by slavers is pretty rough on cultural continuity.  A lot of knowledge was lost shortly after first contact and before anyone decided to study the island.  So a lot of the mysteries come from that gap.

It’s a lot like the mystery of the “Lost Mound Builders” of the American Midwest.  The first person to conduct a serious excavation of a mound, Thomas Jefferson, was able to establish right there that the mound had been built by Indians (Thomas Jefferson excavated the mound that was where he decided to build his house).  Plus early explorers actually met with Indians that lived on and built mounds.  But that didn’t matter to people who were intent on finding out what mysterious people built the mounds.  One popular hypothesis was that it was the Lost Tribes of Israel.  It was important to the early American expansion mythology that the Indians have been capable of nothing noteworthy, and it would have been especially nice if they could have discovered that someone with lighter skin had been living in the US first, so that removing the Indians would have been more like reclaiming land stolen by the savages.  You might not have heard of the Lost Mound Builders, but that might be because as it became absolutely incontrovertibly obvious that they were built by Indians for Indians they seemed to become less amazing and mysterious to the general public.

When pondering the mysteries of lost civilizations there are a few things that should be kept in mind.  First, the term “civilization” is itself actually kind of racist.  Civilization refers to sedentary city building farming societies, but even then what societies are called civilizations seems pretty arbitrary.  The Iroquois were city building farmers whose federation of tribes inspired the design of the United States of America, but they usually aren’t usually called a civilization.  In the Americas the term civilization is usually reserved for polities that are no longer around, like the Aztecs, Mayans, Incans, or Anasazi.  But even then the descendants of those cultures are still around, but they aren’t living in their old big structures, so they are “lost.”  In the case of the Anasazi, even the name is an attempt to separate the big ruins from their descendants who are still around and still living in pueblos in some cases.  The correct name these days is Ancestral Pueblo.  So when you hear about “lost civilizations” just bear in mind that the term basically refers to non-modern people who were not of European descent doing something that colonial powers didn’t want to admit could have been done by the natives.  The second thing to remember is that in most cases there are still people around who are related to the people that did whatever inspired the idea of a lost civilization.

In many cases the people that are still around carry on oral histories that tie them to the “lost civilizations” and often provide details of what happened to those societies.  It seems like these days a lot of post-modernist anthropological thought likes to describe traditionally passed down history as “other ways of knowing” which I find absurd and worse in some ways than the traditional colonial approach of just ignoring the natives.  Native knowledge doesn’t require special magical ways of thinking nearly as much as it requires paying attention.  The example I love lately is the recent discovery of a 200 year old shipwreck… right where the local Inuit have been saying it was for the last 200 years.  The Inuit account didn’t conform to the Western account, so it took 200 years for someone to check out whether or not they were right about where the missing ship was. 

Native knowledge is not always hyper precise and completely factual though, any more than regular history is always super precise and factual.  History is basically the narrative structure we give to things that happened in the past.  Stuff happened long ago, history is the story we tell about it to give the past meaning and value to our present.  Oral history is not a different way of knowing, it’s a different way of learning.  Oral history requires shutting up and listening.  It also requires someone to be there to listen in the language that the teller speaks.  For many natives in the US, the history of residential schools squashing traditional languages helped fracture oral histories by getting rid of people who could listen. 

In Easter Island the oral histories were smashed by disease and enslavement.  In Easter Island there was actually even a system of writing, but the shattering of the traditional society cost even the memory of how to read what was written.  Much of the knowledge that would have helped illuminate the stories of the statues and why they were torn down was lost to disease.  The oral historical record for Easter Island is highly fragmentary.  The loss of people to tell and hear stories meant the loss of those stories.  So sadly a lot of the mysteries of Easter Island are actually tragedies.
Here's where I'm staying, the Refugio Archaeoligica

I'm all up in Easter Island n' stuff.  This is me on days of travelling and no sleep

I had to take a photo of the first Ahu with Moai I saw
Sorry if the end of the post seemed a little dark.  I just wanted to point out that the popular narratives of archaeological mysteries are often kind of problematic.  Rest assured I am having fun doing science in a tropical paradise.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Heading Off to Easter Island

I'm going here

Hello everybody who reads this blog, I was just wanting to write a quick post to let you know that I am going to be in Easter Island for most of November, so I probably won't be managing to do any blog entries.  I have heard that the internet is pretty unreliable out there.

I'm heading out to do some archaeology!  Yay science!  I won't be doing any digging, but I will get an opportunity to do work in the lab with existing samples.  My work is basically going to be counting and sorting many small bits of rock, but I am pretty excited about it.

Getting the opportunity to work in Easter Island is really quite exciting.  When I tell people that I am an archaeologist, if their response is not "ooh, I always wanted to dig up dinosaurs," then it is usually either "like mummies?" or "like the giant stone heads?"  Now I will be able to say, "Yes, EXACTLY like the giant stone heads on Easter Island."  I will get to help further the understanding of how those heads were made, and that is pretty exciting to me.

I won't be able to say "yes, like mummies."  At least not yet, but I will get to say that I've worked at one of the super famous archaeological locales.  My personal interests lie primarily in the arctic, and in learning about the ways people lived before we had written records, but that kind of stuff often lacks the "wow" factor of GIANT STONE STATUES!!! and ANCIENT MUMMY CURSES!!!  Archaeology isn't typically much like the movies, but it is fun and exciting to me.  And now I get to work on something that many people around the world find exciting.

So, have a good November.  I'm off to do science.

P.S.  If I ever unleash unspeakable ancient evil or find evidence of ancient aliens I will be sure to let you know here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why Women Need Business Suits

I just got done reading an article about sexism in academic clothing, "Female Academics: don't power-dress, forget heels - and no flowing hair allowed."  I wish that I could really recommend the article, but when it starts off with claims like:

It’s well known that the suit conveys authority and power in the workplace in overtly masculine ways. You only need to look at the tie, pointing insistently to the male crotch, to recognise this. 

It is hard to take seriously.  That is a shame, because the article does in fact bring up some good points, the article just wraps those points in language designed to infuriate and alienate people who do not precisely share the exact same opinion as the author.


But the article did get me thinking, and that is what I hope for in any sociological article.  The problems of the intersection of women's clothing and feminism are really interesting.  There really is a problem across Western society in trying to figure out what women should wear when they want to be taken seriously.  I happen to disagree with the article's author, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, about what kind of clothing is appropriate to asking for professional respect.  That said, the problem remains that we, as a society, have never actually figured out what kind of clothing is appropriate for a professional woman.

A man can wear a suit if he wants to be taken seriously.  When he wants to be seen as a business man he can wear a business suit.  When it's time to dress up he can wear a tuxedo.  When he wants to be seen as a gentleman of leisure he can wear a blazer and slacks or a more casual suit.  Women's clothing has never allowed the same easy choices.  There isn't a standard women's business suit model, there isn't even a standard button arrangement for women's suits.  There aren't standard shirt styles for women's professional wear.  And when women want to dress up there are no easy formal choices, a look at the commentaries after every red carpet affair should make that clear.

Women have to navigate issues of professional presentation individually.  For men there are a lot of basic ground rules for how suits are designed.  For example, single breasted jackets typically have two or three buttons, unless it's a tuxedo, in which case there can be one.  While there are periodically fads of having four buttons on a jacket, two or three is the rule, and has been for more than a century.  If you look at women's "business suit" jackets there is a dizzying array of possible button and lapel combinations that often serve more to trivialize women than to help them appear serious.

A man's suit declares masculinity, power, and seriousness.  What do women's suits declare?


I did a Google image search for "Women's Business Suit" and this was the second result:
It's business time...
Nothing says "take me seriously" like short sleeves, peaked lapels on a single breated jacket, big shiny interlocking buttons, body revealing cuts, and a cameltoe...

Men's business clothes have traditionally been non-revealing.  Suits look good because we agree they look good and we have invested importance in them, not because they accentuate a man's physique.  Suits do the opposite of accentuating a physique, they allow a physique to not matter.  That is the power of a suit, you don't have to fit a physical mold for a suit to do its job, you just have to follow the rules.  If you wear a lime green peaked lapel single breasted suit with six buttons it doesn't matter what your body looks like, you will look like a joke.  If you are an egg shaped man with zero muscle tone in a well fitted suit, you look like someone to take seriously.

Part of the reason that suits work is that they take advantage of a man's skeletal structure.  The suit hangs from the shoulders.  The lines descend from the shoulders.  Men's shoulders are symbols of power.  We talk about strong shoulders.  Apparently Liam Neeson has shoulders that women find attractive.  Men swagger with their shoulders.  Men shoulder obstacles aside.  Suits amplify the shoulders while giving any man shoulders to be respected.
He has shoulders that just won't quit...  note that even though Liam Neeson has famously broad strong shoulders his suit still pads and shapes the shoulders.  This is the male equivalent of a padded bra.

This is actually a very good example of the gendered way that we view people's bodies.  Men's shoulders are a secondary sexual characteristic, like breasts, hips, and adam's apples.  Shoulders, like breast and hips, are often seen as visually attractive to the opposite sex, and are visible advertisements of health and reproductive potential.  However our culture treats boobs and butts differently than muscly shoulders.  Shoulders, unlike breasts and hips, are seen additionally as symbolizing strength and authority.

Clothing that accentuated women's breasts and hips the way that suits accentuate male secondary sexual characteristics would be viewed very differently than a business suit.  Male secondary sexual characteristics are seen as worthy of respect, whereas women's secondary sexual characteristics need to be concealed.

Consider that men's shoulders are an important part of their physical presence.  An imposing physical presence is intimidating.  Clothing that enhances a man's physical presence is fundamentally an attempt to gain psychological advantage over other men.  A suit is partially a dominance display, like a peacock's tail or a lion's mane.

Female physicality also has the power to gain psychological advantage over men.  When presented with revealing clothing that accentuates female secondary sexual characteristics, men are mentally compromised.  Sexualized clothing has dramatic effects on male brains.  Men become more impulsive, more likely to accept smaller rewards, and more impatient.
So, is Christina Hendricks in a bustier functionally equivalent to Liam Neeson in a suit?  Sadly, no.
However, revealing skin also has dramatic effects on human brains.  Back in 2009 scientists discovered that bikinis caused men to see women as objects.  At the time researchers claimed that it would be difficult to find ways to do this same kind of testing on women, because everyone "knows" that women's brains are different.  There's no way that revealing clothing could have a similar effect on women, so other ways of testing the effect of sexiness would have to be designed, like maybe nice cars...  A couple years later researchers found that it turns out this line of reasoning is crap.  Revealing clothing on men has the same effect on women's brains.  For both men and women, revealing clothing causes us to dehumanize people.  A skimpily clad man or woman is seen as an object whose thoughts and emotions are immaterial.

Biologically, if people want to be taken seriously it helps if they are not wearing revealing clothing.


A common complaint, and the focus of the Stavrakopoulou article, is that it is unfair for women to be judged negatively for dressing in a sexually attractive fashion.  This is both true and untrue.  If male and female brains both objectify members of the opposite sex in revealing clothing then that suggests that there is more than sexism in action on the subject of clothing.  But if our culture treats pretty women as automatically sexualized, then there is no way for a woman to dress nicely and professionally at the same time if they are pretty.

But the clothing that we consider revealing or sexually suggestive is largely dictated by our culture.  What is appropriate or inappropriate clothing is a matter of agreement.  Most people agree that a bathing suit is appropriate attire at the pool, but underwear is not, EVEN THOUGH THE DIFFERENCE IS ENTIRELY ARBITRARY.  The difference is agreement, nothing more.
Seriously, totally arbitrary.  Both options have a similar effect on brain function, but one is acceptable, one is not.
So what I am really arguing that we need is agreement on what clothing is respectable and professional and flattering for women.  A man's suit is flattering because we agree it is.  The same could be accomplished for women's clothing in a non-sexually-suggestive form if it could be agreed upon.


I like suffragette style, though the hats are kind of small in this photo.  To me it says "I'm a woman, and I expect to be taken seriously."

At the dawn of the 20th century women started agitating for the right to vote.  Those women were called suffragettes, and in my personal opinion no one has really gotten closer to a style of women's clothing that commands respect without sacrificing femininity.  The jackets that were worn were actually styled for women, not adapted from men's clothes.  The skirts, while rather dowdy to modern eyes, were serious, but feminine.

Alternative suffragette attire, more of a "don't doubt my gender identity" statement.

Of course, in some cases the suffragettes actually went the other way with the clothing.  Suffragettes were disparaged as being unfeminine, so some suffragettes got aggressively feminine.  Ruffles, lace, and giant hats RIGHT IN YOUR FACE!  This kind of detracts from my praise of the more somber suffragette outfits, but I see the two styles of dress as being appropriate to different settings.  The more somber outfits are analogous to business wear.

I actually kind of like the rather fierce use of aggressive headgear as a part of the look; of course pretty much everybody wore hats in those days, but in all the pictures suffragettes seem to have huge hats that seem as much a statement as a man's swagger.  The swagger and the giant hat both say "back up, I'm taking up just as much space as I want."


On the topic of giant hats, the importance of accessories should not be underestimated.  Ties are given a lot of attention, and not because they draw attention to men's penises.  Bow ties don't point down, and traditionally the long tie would tuck into the high-waisted pants that men wore.  The tie is an opportunity for individual expression while wearing a suit.  The tie allows a suit wearing person to display their decision making abilities.  An inappropriate tie can make a good suit just as much of a joke as the lime green suit.


So now we arrive right back where we started.  Women need professional attire that accomplishes similar functions as a business suit.  Unfortunately, as I said at the beginning, suits work because we agree on them.  There is no agreement on what a woman's suit should be.  Thanks to the butch suits movement, women at least have the option of suits that are actually cut for women, but sadly those suits are just adapted men's suits designs, rather than femininity affirming professional designs for women.  It is important (at least in my mind) that women's professional attire not just be adapted menswear if it is ever really going to signify gender equality.

A "Butch Suit."  While it does not show the face I like this image for a few reasons.  Number one, that is a nice suit.  Number two, it is cut for a woman, but it also illustrates how femininity is minimized in adapted menswear.  Number three, this image also helps illustrate that when it comes to suits, it's the clothes that make the person, the actual person in the clothes is not as important as the suit.  You can find this suit at Tomboy Tailors
Today's business suit is the result of centuries of evolution.  The business suits worn today are actually little changed from the suits that our founding fathers wore in the 18th century.  The components are largely the same.  The length of the pants and jacket have changed, and the vest has become optional.  But when you compare the amount of change that the men's suit has undergone in the last three hundred years to the amount of change that has occurred in women's fashion over just the last forty years you can see how static male fashion has been.

Of course a big part of the reason that we have no agreement on what a women's suit should be is because up until less than 50 years ago the question was immaterial.  Before the modern feminist movement the question of how to dress a woman in professional attire that was also feminine was only slightly more relevant than the question of what kinds of hats a managerial dog would wear.  There were professional women before Women's Lib, but the idea of women being systemically equal to men was seen as absurd.  When women did occupy a professional position they just adapted men's clothes.


Today we live in a world where there have actually been a few generations born since the fight for women's equality kicked into high gear.  But I actually think that our nearness to first wave feminism obscures the true magnitude of feminism.  Provided our society does not self destruct in the next few decades, I think that future historians are going to mark feminism as the characteristic change of our age.  Feminism has had every bit as radical and destabilizing effect on our social fabric as mechanization did at the outset of the industrial revolution.

You often hear people talk about the information age, but the change to a computerized economy is not as great a change as the change from agrarian to industrial was a few hundred years ago.   In fact we still haven't come to terms, as a species, with industrialization.  The issues of capitalism and communism are responses to the upheaval of the industrial era, and we are into a very different world now and no one has even started to figure out how we should be facing the current era.  Feminism has essentially doubled the available work force, while we have not yet found a way to provide for the propagation of our species within the new framework of gender equality.

It might seem like a non sequitur, but I think that an important step in moving forward is dressing women like they actually belong in power on their own terms and merits.  This challenge is further complicated by the fact that the suit is also losing its place in our society, at least out West.  What is considered appropriate professional clothing for men is changing more rapidly than it has in centuries.  At the same time that women have fully come into the work force, the same social forces that allowed women in, have destabilized professional attire for men.  So at the same time that women have to figure out how to dress professionally we have started to lose agreement on what men should wear.

So figuring out what women should wear in professional and academic settings is not going to be easy.  Right now the old rules are crumbling, and we need to find new rules.  Ultimately clothes only have meaning if the meaning is commonly held.  Suits still have meaning and power.  If we can find equivalent standards for women we will be in better shape as a society.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Is Islam Anathema to Western Society?

The School of Athens (Escola de Atenas) - Raphael - This image represents thinkers key to the Renaissance. 
The short answer is: No.

But if we are being honest then we have to admit that there is a problem.  Saying that Muslim extremists comprise only a minority of Muslims is factually accurate.  Suggesting that the minority of extremists does not mean that there is a problem with Islam for the West is wrong.


There is a commonly used chestnut that "Hitler was democratically elected."  In reality, the Nazis only got ~1/3 of the vote.  The Nazis were a minority in Germany leading up to WWII.  That didn't mean the world didn't have a Germany problem.

Marxist rebels were a minority in Russia before the October Revolution, that didn't mean the Tsar didn't have a Marxism problem.

Less than 50% of the white population of the original 13 colonies that formed the US supported independence, but Britain certainly had a revolutionary problem.

Just because an agitating group is a minority within a larger group does not insulate the larger group from blame.  If the larger group does not actively work against the minority agitators then it only takes a minority to effect change.  This doesn't just apply to negative things.  In the US, the majority didn't approve of interracial marriage until the late 1990's, but the minority fighting for equal rights was able to make interracial marriage legal in all states in the US in 1967 when approval of interracial marriage was less than 20%.  It was a minority agitating for change, but the anti-miscegenation crowd had an equality problem.

So let us acknowledge that extremists being a minority is a functionally meaningless issue.  Historically it doesn't matter if an opinion is held my a minority or a majority, it matters what the majority does about it.  Let us contrast interracial marriage with gay marriage.  The majority in the US has favored gay marriage for several years now, but gay marriage is still not fully legal in the US.  It took 30 years of legality for interracial marriage to achieve the levels of approval that gay marriage has, but up until the last few years the majority has acted decisively against gay marriage, and even now the majority is not acting decisively in favor of gay marriage.


I make this argument so that we can start to approach to the larger question of why the West has an Islam problem.  There is a perception among many that Islam and Western secular society are fundamentally incompatible, but this is not true.  You may wonder how I can state as fact that Islam and Western society/thought are not incompatible right after arguing that there is a conflict between Islam and the West.  To begin with, modern secular Western culture owes its existence to Islam.

That's right, without Islam there is no Western society as we know it.


Following the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Europe descended into the dark ages.  Illiteracy and religious fundamentalism were the rules of the time.  Western culture stagnated.  Barbarism and tribal conflict ruled the West.  Pagan philosophy and thought, like the writings of the ancient Greeks and the Romans were quashed and destroyed.  Religious diversity was brutally suppressed.

Women's legal rights were largely non-existent.  European women were covered head to toe with only their faces showing for almost a thousand years.  Even the hair was covered.  The stereotypical nun's habit with its wimple is a familiar vestige of this long era of the severe oppression of women.

When Genghis Khan conquered his way west across Asia he reached Poland.  He won a costly battle, but found nothing worth taking.  He turned his armies around and left Europe to itself.  Europe was too materially impoverished to even be worth conquering.

Even the art of this period was far cruder than the art of the Greeks and Romans.

Then our history books tell us that there was a miraculous reawakening in Europe.  The Renaissance.  Art, culture, trade, and thought flourished.  Classical philosophers like Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato were rediscovered.  Engineering and science exploded.  But where did the knowledge necessary for this reawakening come from?

The Muslim world.

During the long dark period of absolute religious fundamentalism the flame of Western thought and culture had been kept alive by Islam.  Greek and Roman writings were preserved and translated.  During the dark ages Muslim cities had lighted streets.  A hospital founded in Cairo in the late 9th century AD had a library with thousands of book, a pharmacy, licensed physicians, and male and female attendants treating men and women.  A Baghdad hospital of a similar vintage had fountains designed to cool the air inside the hospital.  While Britain was fighting Vikings, Baghdad had air conditioning.

Even our numbering system, so vital to modern science, was introduced to the West from the Muslim world.  The Italian Fibonacci introduced Arabic numerals to Europe in 1202.

A close up on Averroes from Escola de Atenas.  Averroes is a latinization of Ibn Rushd, a Muslim Philosopher


One thousand years ago two cultures clashed.  One culture was impoverished and largely illiterate.  That culture provided few or no legal rights to women, who were covered head to toe in clothing.  They regularly engaged in murderous atrocities against religious minorities.  They were dominated by a religion that taught them to hate and battle infidels.  That was Europe.

European culture clashed against another that they viewed as ungodly and decadent.  This other culture granted legal rights and protections to women and religious minorities to a degree not seen before.  They were rich, literate, scientific, and Muslim.  The clash was called the Crusades.

The Christians slaughtered men women and children.  They committed many atrocities.  But the majority of Christians never killed Muslims in the Middle East.  Most European Christians never even met a Muslim.  Nonetheless Islam still had a Christianity problem.

It seems ironic doesn't it that positions seem reversed today.


The rise of Islam was in many ways as large a moment in the development of human rights and rule of law as the Code of Hammurabi.  As strange as it might seem to many of us today, Sharia law was extraordinarily progressive for its time.  Sharia was particularly progressive in the area of women's rights.  It wasn't until the 20th century that women in Western countries received rights equivalent to the rights provided in Islamic law.  It seems truly bizarre (at least to my mind) to think of Islam as being pro-women, but by the standards of the time in the Middle-East Sharia was practically women's lib.

In the area of religious tolerance early Sharia was also pretty progressive.  While the classical definition of Dhimmi was reserved for Christians and Jews, as the areas of Muslim control grew the idea came to include non-monotheists like Hindus and Buddhists.  A Dhimmi was a second class citizen, but they were still a citizen with protected rights.

It is truly strange to me that the Muslim Revivalist movements of the 20th century seem to focus on an Islam stricter than the Islam that pertained during the time of Mohammad or the following centuries.  When I read about early Islam it seems very different than the vision espoused by ISIS (Salafism) or the Muslim Brotherhood.  It makes me wish that there was a popular Muslim movement to recapture the progressive spirit of early Islam, rather than a regressive repressive version of Islamic law.


The conflict between modern Western society and Islam is not a matter of fundamental incompatibility.  I feel like anyone who has met a significant number of Muslims should be able to see that.  I've known too many Muslims to believe that Islam is any more fundamentally incompatible with our culture than any other religion as a whole.  In many ways our modern secular society was cradled by a tolerant early Islam, more than by an intolerant early Christianity.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that the current conflicts between Western society and Islamic fundamentalism are not religious in nature.  Just like the Crusades were religiously motivated, the current strain of jihadist violence is religiously motivated.  In both cases I think that the religious component is only a part of the overall picture.

I have met people who claim that the Crusades were purely motivated by economics.  I think that idea is too reductive.  You can't reduce something as complicated as a struggle between two cultural groups to a single cause.  These kinds of clashes are not just about economics, nor are they just about water, or even just about religion.  Islam by itself does not result in terrorism any more than Christianity by itself results in terrorism.


But even though Christian fundamentalist terrorists have struck at Western nations for centuries, the West does not usually feel like it has a Christianity problem these days.  If you are asking what Christian terrorists there have been, you can look at religiously affiliated nationalist movements like the IRA in Ireland; or the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda; or religiously motivated groups that bomb abortion clinics; or the Christian Fundamentalist terrorist extraordinaire, John Brown, whose acts helped to precipitate the US Civil War and free the slaves.

And really I think the difference is that Christianity and Western society are pretty synonymous in most people's minds.  For English speakers the conversion of Britain to Christianity predates the development of the English language, so Christianity is privileged in many ways that are so fundamental to the language that they can be hard to spot.  Islam is seen as the other, and increasingly Muslim leaders in the Middle East have been casting themselves as opposition to Western Imperialism.

And it is that idea of opposition to Western Imperialism that gets to the heart of why the West has an Islam problem.  Because here we get back to the issues of the minority versus the majority.


A truism I appreciate is that it doesn't matter what's in your heart, it only matters what you do.  We are all familiar with the idea that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  In life your actions matter more than your inner thoughts.  If Hitler had quietly hated Jews and just tried to take over the world he would not be seen as nearly the monster that he is.  But that was not the case.  Perhaps most Germans during WWII disliked the idea of killing off Jews, but their actions didn't prevent the Holocaust.  Inaction can be just as bad as action, and it doesn't matter whether or not people see themselves as good or decent if their actions do not seek to stop injustice.

I don't mean to compare Islam to Nazism, Nazis are just an easy target.  And because everyone is familiar with them and pretty much everybody hates them, they make an easy allegory.

The comparison I want to draw here is about people saying that they do not support something while they do nothing to oppose it.  When there is not widespread condemnation among Muslim groups of the goals and tactics of extremists it does not matter whether or not extremists are a minority.  A silent majority empowers a vocal and active minority.


Islam and the West are not incompatible at their cores.  They are not even unrelated.  But if we close our eyes to the problems growing between Islam and the West then we all contribute to the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism.  We in the West need to look honestly at what conditions in the Middle East are contributing to conflict, and what actions of ours exacerbate the problems.  We can't do that if we are trying to be politically correct and deny that there is a problem.

And in the Muslim world people can't just say that extremists are a minority.  I know that speaking and acting out against the extremists can be very dangerous for individuals.  We are all familiar at this point with the price Malala Yousafzai paid for daring to try to get an education, and she survived.  Many other individuals who have tried to stand up to Muslim extremists have died.  And as long as the majority stays silent and quiescent that will not change.

The extremists are the minority, even where they are in power.  That doesn't matter.  Actions matter, not thoughts.  The extremists act while the majority stands by.  That is how it always is pretty much everywhere.  The majority is harder to organize than a minority.  It is easier to find agreement in a minority.  And an organized minority is stronger than a disorganized majority.

In a leadership and organizational vacuum, whoever is organized and prepared to lead can thrive.  In Gaza, Hamas thrives.  In Syria and Iraq, ISIS is thriving.  ISIS is not thriving because people there don't want to live in peace, or don't love their children, or don't want nice things.  ISIS and similar organizations like the Taliban, thrive because the majority that just wants to lead their lives in peace are disorganized and unled.  Islam is not to blame for the power vacuums that currently obtain in much of the Middle East, but it does provide an easy rallying point for organizations that want to fill that vacuum.

Air strikes weren't successful in Vietnam.  They weren't successful between the Gulf War and 9/11.  And they aren't going to be successful now.  Likewise casting any criticism of Islam as racist is not going to fix the problems.

If we want to stop ISIS and other groups of that ilk from gaining power we need to be able to talk about why they are able to rise to power.  We can't get there if we treat Islam as anathema to our society.  We also can't get there if we are stuck on politically correct evasions.  Looking honestly at the consequences of our actions and refusing to accept blame shifting can do a lot more than trying to be superficially sensitive or dropping bombs.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dear Ottawa: Don't Let Fear Change You

The scene this morning at the Canadian Parliament

This morning at least one gunman, probably at least two, opened fire on Capitol Hill in Ottawa Canada.  At least one of the soldiers standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial was injured, and US Today reports that the wounded soldier has died of his injuries.  The shooter sprinted into the Parliament building where there was more shooting.  A gunman has been confirmed dead inside Parliament.

In 2004 and 2005 I made my home outside of Ottawa.  I have many friends there.  I am a dual Canadian and US citizen.  I moved to Canada in large part out of anger at the fear driven changes in America following September 11, 2001.  I hated the evisceration of the US Constitution and the poorly planned aggression of the only country I had ever called home (I was born in Canada, but had never lived there before 2004).  I decided that I would take advantage of my Canadian citizenship and move to a country that had not abandoned its values and founding principles out of fear.

The thing that made me most happy to be in Canada while I lived there was the openness of Parliament.  Even before 9/11 the US Capitol was extremely secure.  The seat of American power is locked and walled away from the people of the US.  Walls and guards separate the White House from its subjects.  Before I moved to Ottawa it never even occurred to me that there could be a different way of doing things.  It blew me away when I moved to Canada that I could just walk right up to Parliament anytime I wanted.

Several times I decided that I wanted to walk around Parliament at night and peek in the windows, just because I lived in a country free enough to allow me to do so.  The only time security ever stopped me was when there was a light show being projected on the front of Parliament.  The guards just wanted to make sure that I didn't mess with the projection equipment, they had no problem with me poking around the Parliament building.  And yes, you read that last section right, they were having a light show on the Parliament building.  People were sitting on the Parliament lawn and listening to music and watching a light show.

.There was an openness to the Canadian Capitol that I found wonderful and liberating.  The government felt like it was of the people, not imposed on the people.  And whenever I started forgetting the dramatic nature of the difference between Canada and the US there was the nearby US Embassy to remind me.

The US Embassy in Ottawa is a post-modernist interpretation of a submarine, surrounded by neo-classical buildings and castles.  After 9/11 the US embassy blocked off a lane of traffic surrounding the building in the middle of downtown Ottawa with jersey barriers.  Inside of those Jersey barriers was a row of pylons with steel shafts that extended underground designed to stop tanks.  Inside of that row of pylons is a tall fence made of pointed metal and concrete.  The walls look to be several feet thick and the glass appears to be bulletproof, and there is no evidence of any windows that can be opened.  The entire structure is surmounted by a brooding turret.  When first I went to the embassy in 2002 there was a security checkpoint outside of the gate to the embassy.  After passing through that metal detector people were allowed one at a time to enter a door that opened on hydraulics.  After the first door closed a second actuated door would let a person out of the vestibule where they could pass through a more thorough security check like at an airport.  Once through this security I was able to go wait to speak to a representative through armored glass.

The dramatic difference between the open Parliament and the militaristic Embassy was painful to me.  In a city characterized by openness, monuments, and pretty buildings the US Embassy was fortified and designed to look like a ship of war.

Obviously I ultimately decided to move back to the US.  Despite my anger at many of the choices our country has made, I am an American.  There is a lot I love about the land of my birth, but America is my home.  I don't have to live here, I choose to live here.  I am fortunate to have the choice.

Many of the cultural differences between the US and Canada seem minor until you spend a significant amount of time in either country.  As I was living in the woods of Quebec outside of Ottawa there was one difference that seemed extra dramatic, and that was gun laws.  Where I lived there were a lot of bears.  Wherever you live in Canada you are not far from roadless wilderness.  Having grown up in Alaska, I wanted to have a gun for protection against bears.  However, in Canada the process is a lot more complicated than just going to a gun store.  I'm not going to go into the details of the process, you can look them up if you want to.

I bring up guns because today there was gun violence in Ottawa.  Sadly this means that now there is immediate reaction from pro and anti gun groups on both sides of the border.  At a time when Ottawa is still locked down and a family is being notified that their child was murdered while watching over a monument to the fallen, people are already mobilizing their political talking points.

The sad fact is that for a free country dominated by wilderness there is no sane level of gun control that could ever totally remove the threat of gun violence.  And even if guns could be totally controlled within Canada there is an open border between the US and Canada.  That said, this is an anomaly in Canada.  Canada does not have the levels of gun violence that we do here in the US, so claiming that this incident proves gun regulation to be useless is nonsensical.  I have been clear in this blog that I am a supporter of gun rights, but right now I want to be clear that I do not think that this is the time to be making arguments about gun laws.

There will be debate, but decency should compel us to have those debates at a later date.  Right now there has been an incident.  And while the death toll might not be huge, there has been a tragedy.  None of us know why this tragedy took place.  None of us know any of the details that might lead to an understanding of how or why this took place.  Now is a time to pay attention and to be quiet until we know more.

However, there is one thing I do want to say as loudly as I can right now.  Whatever might come of this tragedy, I hope that Canada will not allow the character of its capitol to change.  I hope that the fear created by this action does not lead to a separation of the government from the people of Canada.  This attack today struck at one of the most precious things Canada has, its openness.  I hope that the attack does not cost Canada that treasure.