Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Do your femurs make you look lazy?

Reposted from One Day at a Time.

I've been reading interesting things about femurs lately!

For instance, if you take a cross-section of a femur at around the middle of the shaft, the shape of that cross-section can indicate the individual's activity level.

Bones, like muscles, grow and develop in response to physical exercise over time. Ambulatory activities like walking and running excercise the leg muscles and expose the bone to mechanical stresses in the anterior-posterior (front to back) direction. The result is that a person who does a lot of long-distance walking or running during his or her lifetime will have a femoral cross-section that looks vaguely elliptical, with the bone being thicker on the anterior-posterior (front ot back) axis than in the medial-lateral (side to side) direction. In other words, if you walk or run a lot, your femur will be thicker than it is wide.

More sedentary types, like most modern Americans, will have femoral cross-sections that are pretty much symmetrical in all directions, since the bone hasn't been exposed to much greater stress on any particular axis.

My fiance, when I told him this, was instantly self-conscious about the possibility of having round midshaft femoral cross-sections. He makes me laugh. :)

Anyway, that spiffy bit of triva came from Skeletons in Our Closet: Revealing Our Past Through Bioarchaeology by Clark Spencer Larsen.

It was one of that set I rescued from the flea market a couple of months ago, and it may well be the best fifteen cents or so that I ever spent. Larsen's writing style is engaging and easy to follow, and he works his wonderfully clear explanations of osteopathology and analysis methods into the unfolding story of his own research in the Great Basin, which is in turn set against the larger story of the global transition from hunting-and-gathering to farming and its consequences for human health and lifestyles.

I'm actually taking notes as I read this one, because it's interesting information and very well presented, and because I'm making a concerted effort to maintain both decent study habits and passable currency in the field between now and the time I start back to grad school (hopefully January of 2012). So far it feels like it's working.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Stories in Stone (book review!)

Reposted from One Day at a Time.

I just finished reading Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. It occupied me during the slow stretch at work last week, because even on my rather morbid bookshelves I couldn't find anything more perfect to read at a funeral home. Several other items came close, though, and I think I'm going to make a point of choosing my at-work reading accordingly, just to see how long it takes someone to notice.

Besides, I have a certain morbid "I Like Sunlight Too Much And Don't Mope Enough To Be A Goth, But I Still Wear Too Much Black And Don't Mind The Smell of Decomp" reputation to maintain.

It was written (and photographed, kudos for versatility) by Douglas Keister, a man with a rather unfortunate surname (the poor fellow must have been the butt of lots of jokes).

Yes, that was immature of me. I'm done giggling now.

Um, actually, not yet.

Okay, now.

Moving on.

This one was an acquisition from Barnes and Noble's bargain shelves (as was Kwaidan and a decent handful of my other books; apparently either that's where they keep all the really obscure weird stuff, or I'm just broke a lot but still addicted to books... probably both. I bought it on an outing with Greg before I actually moved up here with him, so there were some pleasant memories found in just picking it up again. It amuses me sometimes how many of my books I can actually remember the provenance of, and I will be both happy and sad the day my library is large enough that this changes.

Overall, the book was a nice enough read, although I'm fairly sure it was intended more for use as a guidebook than for sit-down reading, as the title suggests. It's divided into chapters, and each chapter has an introduction and then several encyclopedia-style topical entries, each ranging in length from a few lines to a couple of pages. That makes it handy for looking things up but a little choppy to just read straight through.

I was reading at work and in a somewhat scattered mood over the last few days, so having something in short quickly digestible blocks was actually a plus, under the circumstances.

There were a few slightly erroneous statements that caught my attention, though:

Page 72: "Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, is depicted with the head of a dog."

Calling Anubis the god of the dead is oversimplifying the Egyptian pantheon a bit; Osiris is technically the ruler of the underworld and the deceased counterpart to the living king Horus. A dead pharaoh was an embodiment of and one with Osiris the way a living pharaoh was an embodiment of and one with Horus. Pretty much all the gods have some role in the preparation, final journey, judgment, or afterlife of the deceased- most of the Egyptian gods are in some way "gods of the dead." Anubis himself was more a god of the funerary process, particularly embalming. Still, that's forgivable except...

Anubis' head was that of a jackal, not a dog. A dog is less like a jackal than you are like a gorilla.

It's a minor enough mistake, except that I would except any book on funerary imagery to at least get the basic features of Anubis' identity right. Maybe I'm just an Egyptology snob.

Page 138: "Word entomologists tell us that the phrase 'gone to pot' may have had its origin as a reference to a cinerary urn."

I'm not sure what a word entomologist is- perhaps someone who studies whether silverfish in libraries prefer to eat pages with more nouns or verbs? I'm equally unsure whether that is a typographical error or, more likely, someone getting the words themselves swapped around, which I've seen happen numerous times. All obscure disciplines beginning with the letter E must be, on some level, interchangeable.

Either way, it's something a copy editor at least should have caught.

On the other hand, "cinerary" is a damn cool word.

These are relatively minor errors, but I found them a little jarring, and they gave me cause to take the rest of the information in the book with a grain of salt, because those were just the errors I recognized. What else could the author have gotten wrong in areas outside my scope of knowledge that I might not catch? Mistakes like that cost some credibility with the reader.

The author regained a portion of that credibility by including a decent bibliography at the end. I'm a sucker for a good bibliography, especially if the book managed to leave me more interested in the topic on the last page than I was on the first- which this one did.

I also appreciated the discussion of Chinese and Japanese iconography, symbolism, and practices. Too many Western studies tend to overlook non-European perspectives, and it was refreshing to find a more comprehensive approach, in addition to the fact that the information itself was an interesting overview.

The photography was beautiful and well-integrated with the text, and the captions were informative and concise.

Having finished Stories in Stone, I'm contemplating following up with a Saturday outing to one of the historic cemeteries in the Bell County area with the digital camera and this handy guidebook. Maybe I'll find something interesting.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sad news

Reposted from One Day at a Time.

I was just informed by my team leader yesterday afternoon that one of my teammates' dogs has been diagnosed with cancer and has only three to six months left to live.

We are a small, close-knit team, and have been told repeatedly that to outside viewers we look more like a family than a search and rescue team (albeit a really morbid and insanely focused family with some strange hobbies), and after three years and over a dozen missions (and I'm the newcomer!) it feels that way. None of us can feel the loss quite as deeply as the handler who now faces losing her partner, but we all feel it, in ways that would probably surprise outsiders.

There is no connection quite like that between a working canine handler and her dog. They share hours in training filled with the shared challenge of teaching and learning- both their respective tasks and the much more complex process of teaching each other to communicate and understand- as well as the laughter and play of fun and reward and the thrill and pride of success. Then they share grueling hours in the field, in heat and cold, in wind and sun and rain, through mud and brush and water, over rocks and rubble, hungry and thirsty and tired but united by shared trials and shared dedication. At last they share the profound fulfillment of a find. It is the dog with whom the handler first shares the rewarding knowledge of having brought closure to a family and dignity to a lost human being. If there is no find, it is with the dog that the handler first shares the frustration and disappointment of failure. It is the dog with whom the handler also first shares her reaction to the emotional nature of the work- the fact that even the joy of a find is a grim thing, and that the things we find are almost never pleasant. And in the end, it is the dog for whom the handler reserves her pride. If the handler has succeeded in anything, it is in teaching, for it is the dog upon whom all else relies.

The other members of a team form their own attachments. Every handler and flanker assists in some way with the training of every dog on the team; all of us share at least some of those hours in the field, some of those victories and defeats and the challenges and joys along the way. That sharing binds all of us, human and canine alike, into something very like a family. The word "team" for me will always carry that connotation, and "teammate" will never mean merely "colleague" or "friend"; it means something more like "brother" or "sister". Now we all grieve the loss of one of our teammates, and we also grieve for the suffering of another teammate as she faces the loss of her partner.

Aspen and her handler have been my friends and my teammates for three years now. I've followed that dog over rubble piles after Hurricane Ike and feared for her safety at every step. I've fallen asleep in the car on the way home from missions using her as a pillow, and I've watched her sleep with her head on my knee on those same trips, drooling down my leg. I've sat behind her on a boat, trying to gauge whether she might be about to alert by counting the wrinkles in her forehead (that worried, hyperfocused expression Rottweilers do so well) and suffered no end of teasing because the resultant picture looks like I'm sniffing her butt. That dog has stepped on my head more times than I can count during training, when I was lying underwater playing simulated drowning victim and she chose to mark my position by walking over me. She has also very patiently been there when I needed a hug- there is nothing in the world quite so solid and reassuring to hug as an amiable Rottweiler.

I remember one search last spring, when we had been out all day in the heat and a group of us accompanied Aspen down to the water for a cool-down. Her handler was tossing a tennis ball into the water for her to retrieve, enjoying a nice cooling swim in the process. The victim's family was on-scene not far away, and a little boy- a younger cousin or nephew of the victim, I think- walked up and asked if he could throw the ball for the big dog. The kid's father was hesitant, not wanting to bother the busy rescue team, but Aspen's handler assented- Aspen is a certified therapy dog in addition to SAR, and the kid was, for a few minutes, not an anxious family member, not languishing in the heat, not wondering why the adults were all so sad- he was just a happpy little kid playing in the water with a big happy dog, and I've always thought Aspen probably changed his entire perception of the day.

Aspen has been a good dog, a good friend, and a good teammate, and we will all miss her.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Musings on Myth

Reposted from my personal blog,One Day at a Time.

So, it's a slow day at the funeral home, and I'm settled in here at my desk with Joseph Campbells's Transformations of Myth Through Time which is actually much less dry than the title makes it sound.

Campbell is an anthropolgist focused on myth and comparative religion, brilliant and insightful and engagingly articulate. The book itself is a collection of fairly informal lectures, so the writing style is a little more casual than I was expecting, as you'll see in the bits I quote below, but it's every bit as fascinating and challenging as I had come to expect from Joseph Campbell.

As I read Chapter 2, certain pieces really got me thinking, and I decided to share some commentary. A lot of it is likely to stir up some controversy and get me called some unpleasant names, and I apologize in advance to whoever I might offend. /disclaimer

[. . .] "And when it came to this problem of explaining what this Buddha-consciousness or Christ-consciousness was, I looked up at the ceiling for an inspiration and I found one. I said, 'Look up, boys, at the ceiling and you will see that the lights(plural) are on, or you might also say the light (singular) is on, and this is two ways of saying the same thing.' In one case, you are placing emphasis on the individual bulb, in the other you are placing emphasis on the light.

[. . .] Now when one of those light bulbs breaks, the superintendent doesn't come in and say, 'Well, that was my particularly favorite bulb.' He takes it out, throws it away, and puts another one in. What is important is not the vehicle, but the light.

Now, looking down at all your heads, I ask myself, of what are these the vehicles? They are the vehicles of consciousness. How much consciousness are they radiating, and which are you? Are you the vehicle, or are you the consciousness?" -p. 29

The underlying assumption here is that each lightbulb emits a light quantitatively- and more important, qualitatively- equal to the bulb it replaced and the bulb which will replace it, not to mention the bulbs surrounding it in the meantime. The individual bulbs are identical and interchangeable, and so is the light they emit; so is its effect on the total Light in the room. An individual bulb's light contributes nothing to the Light but quantity; it has no special characteristics that make an impact on the whole shared Light.

By extension, the analogy asserts that human beings are vessels and vehicles for consciousness in the same way that light bulbs are vessels and vehicles for light; it also asserts that the consciousness contained in and expressed by each individual human (components of a univeral Consciousness which our myths strive to make us aware of and in connect us to) is not only quantitatively equal to that of every other individual, but quantitatively equal and interchangable as well. There is nothing unique about any one individual, no special contribution or effect on the Consciousness or the Universe which can be made by that individual and that individual alone. The next bulb in the row produces an identical light.

A certain interpretation of the Buddhist philosophy expressed in the analogy could assert that the personality and uniqueness that define each of our worldly selves as individuals are actually part of the earthly vessel rather than part of the transcendent consciousness to which Campbell refers. My Western individualism rebels against this notion.

White light, from a physics standpoint, is made up of all the colors in the light spectrum; to produce white, these colors must be mixed in equal amounts- an imbalance produces a bluish or reddish or greenish light. Suppose for a moment that, if we continue Campbell's analogy and represent human consciousness as light, each individual's unique qualities- the things that make my soul a similar thing to your soul, but definitely not the same soul- are represented as variations in the color of that individual's light, and the combination of various-hued lights from the bank of bulbs merges eventually into a white spotlight.

Just a thought.

"Now I want to go back to the main myth of the Navajo. [. . .] It is of the first people having come up from the womb of the earth through a series of four stages, and they go from one stage to another. Some accident happens in the lower stages; a flood comes as a punishment for impropriety of some sort, the breaking of a taboo or something of the sort, and they come on up. And finally they come to the top level, the earth on which we are now." - p. 32

This account could be viewed as approximately parallel to the Biblical account of Man's "fall" and subsequent divine punishments. Adam and Eve's banishment from the Garden of Eden could, in the Navajo context, represent a forced climb up from one stage to the next. The aftermath of the flood in Noah's day could represent another (Campbell doesn't mention whether the Navajo account includes an attrition rate).

Does anyone with more Biblical knowledge than I possess want to see if we can figure out which events there might parallel the Navajo's four stages? It could be an interesting project.

"Furthermore, the land is the holy land. And the land where you are, not the land someplace else. Not only the body, but the specific landscape in which the people are dwelling is sanctified in these old mythologies. You don't have to go someplace else to find the holy land." -p. 29

"But there is a difference between the science of 2000 B.C. and the science of A.D. 2000. And we're in trouble on it because we have a sacred text that was composed somewhere else by another people a long time ago and has nothing to do with the experience of our lives. And so there's a fundamental disengagement.

[. . .]An article from Foreign Affairs called the "Care and Repair of Public Myths" says that a society that does not have a myth to support and give it coherence goes into dissolution. That's what's happening to us." -p.46-47

While I personally do not subscribe to the claim that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation, any halfway astute observer has to admit that our social structure and the public concerns which become political issues have been influenced heavily by Judeo-Christian philosophy, beliefs, and writings, and that our public is predominantly at least nominally Christian.

That means that a significant portion of America's culture and public life are based heavily on writings and thoughts and laws written thousands of years ago in another place and another culture. We have no native, American myth tied to this place and this culture and this societal reality- all the belief systems tied to American soil and American settings were systematically wiped out with only a few scattered, aging, and mostly disregarded survivals. We are, as a culture and as a nation and as a people, mythically and philosophically displaced. We have no roots of myth or belief to call our own- we're still clinging to someone else's and trying to make them fit.

Campbell's commentary about the land flows from a discussion of how most Native American belief systems, and others around the world, both drew their myth from the landscape around them and, if they relocated, resituated their myth onto the new landscape. They made their home itself the Holy Land. Most modern Americans (and many modern Europeans) don't consider their home the Holy Land. Their myth- our myth, is not tied to our home. It's tied to another place and another culture thousands of miles away on another continent. This has produced not only a sense of cultural displacement, but some very expensive political entanglements out of the resulting sense of obligation to some foreign place most of us will never see, let alone live in and truly identify with.

It occurs to me that this "disconnect" Campbell mentions between our culture and that from which we try to draw guidance may be the source of so much of the cultural polarization and strife today. We have no roots, we have no direction, and of course we're at each other's throats, because trying to hash out a common identity and a common philosophy without that is a nasty process.

The solution? I don't honestly know. I'm not foolish enough or arrogant enough to declare anyone's religion outdated or wrong, and that's not at all what I'm trying to say here. Certainly we can't do a quick edit of the Bible and change some place names and update some cultural references. One, it's terribly disrespectful at the least, and two, someone's going to notice, you know? So what do we do?