Sunday, January 25, 2009

GIS and Archaeology Take 2

I'd just like to post a link that Steve Chrisomalis (author of the Glossographia blog) showed me, as it exemplifies what I was trying to say at the end of my last post rather nicely.

Just a note for while you are reading it: replace the word history with archaeology....if you want to that is.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Grad School and Objectivity Gripes...with a little bit of GIS on top

Soooooo.......maybe I lied when I said I would do a real post over the holidays. I guess I really needed a good break, and though I was still finishing up some grad school apps (which, as anyone else who has applied to grad school can confirm, are the bane of the entire universe's existence), the majority of my holiday consisted of catching up on some much needed video game time. But alas, the holidays were too short, to few computer generated zombies were blown to smithereens, and the demands of the real world (as much as you can consider an undergrad's universe as the "real" world) returned with a vengeance.

Before going into the semi-intellectual subject matter of this blog post I'm going to gripe about a few things. Not because any of you really want to hear me complain about things, but hey, that's part of the reason people blog. The world is full of complainers...and most of them are on the interweb.....blogging.....right now. These gripes may incense a few readers, and if they do, please feel free to comment, I'd like to hear your opinions on the subject, and hell, comment even if they don't incense you. Hooray for web 2.0 and it's user generated content glory!

Let's start with gripe number one. Applying to grad school. Now I know that probably most of you have probably done this before, but maybe not too recently, so let me remind you of how much of a pain it is. First of all, filling out the same information over, and over, and over again....only slightly tedious. What we really need is a grad school application internet database which houses all your application information and sends it to universities for you, so that you only have to fill out the information once, kind of like ETS does with your GRE scores (don't get me started on the GRE and how useless a test it is and how a cultural bias is built into the test, ensuring that only people from privileged high class western schooled backgrounds score the best....maybe that will be an entirely different blog post in the future). Some schools have started doing this, but it's kind of slow to catch on, and I don't feel like it's being implemented in a way that uses it's potential as a time saving device. Kudos to University of Michigan and Oxford, who use the same "Embark" online application service, as well as Washington State University and University of New Mexico, who use the same "CollegeNet" online application service. It's a step in the right direction, but even so, each university has a completely different application form to fill out within the online service, which means putting in the same info a bunch of times, and kind of defeats the whole purpose of using an online application service, no? And before moving on, I need to throw in some comments about the actual application process itself, which is utterly painful, I mean, who actually enjoys writing up a different personal statement or statement of intent for every school being applied to? There is nothing worse than having to talk yourself up on paper to an ominous graduate committee. I'd like to focus my argument specifically on the American grad school applications. Now before you go and accuse me of being anti-American (which I am definitely not.....just the thought of dreamy Barack Obama warms the cockles of my heart) just hear me out. I applied to four different American grad schools, and the applications are extremely long and require so much information that they couldn't possibly need. I'm looking at you University of Michigan, but don't take this in a harsh negative way (please accept me, please accept me, please accept me), your online application just requires a little bit of "pruning". Applying in Canada was so much easier, it almost didn't feel like a chore, the process was short, not quite sweet, but short nonetheless. I suppose one could argue that American grad schools are more competitive, but I don't see how making the application such an arduous process really reflects this, aside from actually discouraging people from applying as it is such a time/commitment suck, but maybe that's what they are trying to do! Another small gripe is just the timing of these applications. Most of them were due around January 1st, or actually during December, and for many of us who are applying while in our final year of our undergrad, this is the most awful timing imaginable. I know there's not much that can be done about the timing as I'm sure that being on a graduate committee and selecting grad students is both a time consuming and difficult task, but one month later (or even a few months earlier) would significantly reduce the amount of grad application induced panic attacks.

Wow. I almost feel out of steem after that rant, like it should be nap time. If that last paragraph doesn't make much sense to you, my apologies, that was more for my venting purposes than for your reading purposes, but any questions, comments or critical oppositions are welcome!

Onto the next gripe, which I feel may stem from the fact that I am an Archaeologist in training who currently places himself directly in the processual theoretical camp, but hey, it's still a gripe. It's my last semester here at McGill and I still have a few requirements to complete my honours anthropology degree before graduating. One of these requirements is to complete 3 "core" courses in anthropology, which are basically theory courses. Personally I think this is great, as many undergrads head into their graduate degrees in archaeology with little or no theoretical knowledge about the discipline. But McGill only offers 2 strictly archaeological theory core courses, which necessitates those of us who are doing an honours degree to delve into anthropological theory, which for me at least, can be rather infuriating. Before getting into the meat of this gripe I want to say that I am not against anthropology, the reason I study archaeology is that I was initially attracted the anthropology, but found that archaeology suited me much much better, so any Anthropologist's (in the strict sense, not the North American joining of the disciplines sense with both Anthropologist's and Archaeologists being considered "Anthropologists") out there, please don't take this to heart, and you are more than welcome to post your comments or email me if you've got a problem with this, I like a good theoretical discussion, and you would probably point things out that I am completely oblivious to! The infuriating thing for me is the lingering post-modern (or as I lovingly refer to it, po-mo) approach to anthropology. I know that post-modernism brought some good things to the table, mostly being self critical and aware of your personal biases, but it tends to make people talk about essentially nothing, or discuss a concept that really doesn't need discussing anymore. Simply put, I find an overly post-modern approach to anthropology to result in useless debate which kind of feels like flogging a dead horse, or the restatement of the same thing over and over without out anything really being accomplished. So how does this all tie together you ask? Why does this blog post seem so incoherent (aside from the fact that I suffer from some bad cases of "flight of ideas")? Well, in the non-archaeological core course that I've decided to take this semester the discussion this week has been on the subject of objectivity in anthropology. We have spent 3 one hour sessions discussing this topic and have come to the conclusion that strict objectivity is impossible in anthropology. Which was what was said at the beginning of the first one hour session....SO WHY ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT IT!? Isn't this common knowledge in the field of anthropology? why do we need to discuss this so much? is saying the same thing over and over really helping us learn more about anthropological methods? I really don't think so. And I feel that the reason we are sitting in this class, talking about this seemingly obvious fact, is the post-modern trend of flogging and dead concept. I get it. I hope we all get it. It's not difficult to grasp that anthropological research can never be completely objective (as is the case with nearly every kind of social scientific research, even some scientific research, including archaeology, which I feel falls in the gap between the two). Anyway, I'm not sure if I've clearly conveyed what I really wanted to say, hope you understand why I'm complaining about this, and if you've got something to add or just want to attack my naive opinionated-ness, please do!

Done ranting (for the time being anyway). Sorry about that. But now I just wanted talk shortly about how awesome and intelligible to the public (specifically non-archaeologists and non-academics) GIS can make archaeology. Mostly by showing you some nifty web apps that clearly were created with the assistance of some facet of GIS.

So these are just four links to some interesting maps/flash animations. The first link is a site which has a bunch of historical map animations showing range of empires, European history, and such (the narrator for tha animations is pretty awesome too). The second link is an interactive cartogram with different socioeconomic stats you can look at. The third link is a GIS time line of Roman aqueducts. The fourth link in a really cool flash animation of the imperial history of the middle east. All of these were found using stumbleupon (yay for pseudo-productive time wasting!)

You may be thinking that these are really only useful mediums for Historians, Human Geographers, or Classical Archaeologists, as those are the only examples I've found. But before you latch on to that thought imagine this: an academic world where people report everything about their sites, including geographic coordinates. Now imagine how we could use GIS to create stuff like this to convey information and geographical patterns of prehistoric archaeological sites in an easy to understand, easily accessible format. THAT WOULD BE AWESOME. I don't know what else to say about this right now, I've kind of run out of steam after those rants. But GIS and information technology is something that really needs to be exploited when it comes to prehistoric archaeology, and has the potential to make archaeological knowledge more easily disseminated. I don't think I really need to discuss how useful GIS is to archaeology for understanding spatial patterning and highlighting variations in pattering that we would completely miss without such a useful tool, because I'm sure it's been done before and you are all aware of how useful it can be.

That's all for now, sorry for such a mishmash and beastly post. Future posts will be more structured. I promise. And now it's time for some thesis work...anyone out there good with Netlogo?