Feature creep

by Cornel  

My last post provided some details about my current "work in progress". Things have been progressing quite nicely since then, and the new version of PaleoArchives is just about to hit a milestone, as the user interface is nearly feature complete. I completely reorganized the content sections, and in the process of doing so I made the underlying platform so generalized that it can accommodate any site type, Palaeolithic or otherwise. Assemblage types (e.g. lithic and fauna) are no longer "wired in" - they are now dynamic, and site managers can add new types (e.g. ceramic).

While more generalized in one sense, in another sense the new version of PaleoArchives is a lot more specific. Data on assemblages (and in the latest version, also individual samples) are presented and edited in tabular format, making the content a breeze to search. For the tabular data to be useful, every element has to be cross-linked (in the database itself, not just by textual reference) to stratigraphic components and entries in the excavation history. This is not a trivial task, since different researchers often report different (sometimes radically so) stratigraphies for the same site, but I got it figured out. My ultimate objective is to allow for details to go down all the way to individual sample XYZ in a coherent spatial framework. 

To make the new content breakdown more useful, the old "site list" table is now only one alternative to navigating the database; the other alternative is sample or analysis based navigation, which will show similar tables but for each assemblage type individually, in addition to generalized samples (e.g. C14) and features (e.g. hearth or house structure) tables.

In any case, there are two features that I plan on implementing before I make the new version public: a Harris Matrix composer, built right into the platform, and content delegation. Although both of these features will delay release (November probably), I think they are worth it. The first feature, the Harris Matrix composer, will be a bit of a challenge, since I plan on incorporating features not normally seen in Harris Matrices and, in any case, I'm not aware of -any- web based composer of this kind (perhaps I'll make this available as an independent program as well). I think it's imperative to build one into the infrastructure, however, since it seems to be the only sane way of presenting the stratigraphic data in a format that can easily be linked to other types of data, such as individual samples. The second feature, content delegation, is just cool - it will allow PaleoArchives to be updated with content from other databases. I won't reveal the details of how that'll work quite yet, but it's fairly straightforward to implement.


Work in progress...

by Cornel  

The lack of new posts over the past few days is not due to forgetfulness or a diminishing interest in updating the blog. I've just been spending every single minute of my free time working on PalaeoArchives, an online database of Romanian Middle Palaeolithic sites that I first presented on at the Paleoanthropology Society meeting in Memphis (2012). While functional at the moment, the database was supposed to be ready (in terms of both content and infrastructure) quite some time ago, but I never got a chance to really work on it until now. I'm extremely excited about all the new features that I'm implementing, and I'm really hoping to have the final version done by October. I won't rush things, of course, but I just have a lot of momentum, so I think it's doable.

So what are all these new and exciting features? Well, the collaboration component, for one. I was originally going to implement a pretty simple system, but things have changed. I thought long and hard about how to best implement a 100% open, truly collaborative online archaeological database without sacrificing the reliability and accuracy of the data. One of the biggest challenges is to provide clear and meaningful benefits for users that take responsibility for the content (editing or managing it), and to implement the collaborative framework in such a way that the database can be maintained with minimal centralized oversight. But I think I've got it nailed! I will spare you the details at this point, but here's a sneak peak: in the current working version users can discuss essentially all of the objects that make up the content, from bibliography entries to site descriptions, and the main components are all versioned (users can view older versions and evaluate the differences). The overall content is managed within a three-tier access system, and all core updates have to be approved by all listed content managers (assigned on a per-site basis), although I allowed for branching of core information in case there is major disagreement.

Another exciting feature are the user loadable (and shareable!) thematic maps. I've completely changed the mapping component, "renouncing" the Google API in favour of OpenLayers. The Google layers are all still there, but now you'll be able to see a range of other maps as overlays, including geologic and topo maps (and, if all works well, a map with the location of known raw material sources from an external database). More than that, users will be able to add their own overlays, either permanently (storing them on the server for others to see as well) or temporarily. The automatically generated overlay with site locations will be completely customizable with the aid of filters, and users will be able to download these custom overlays as KML files.

Finally, the content as well as the site itself will be translatable to other languages. Users will be able to select the display language of each object (e.g. news items, summaries of biblio entries, etc), if translations exist, or they will be able to submit translations of a particular piece of content if they so desire. This will allow content managers (people who have excavated, or are excavating the sites) to enter or update the information in whatever language they feel is best.

There are many other changes, some quite major (restructuring of the content into more discrete and meaningful categories), others not so much (changes to the look and feel). Given the availability of a new filtering system and a new, more meaningful and flexible data structure, I've decided that instead of entering only well-documented sites, I will enter all known or suspected Romanian Middle Palaeolithic sites into the database, and leave the door wide open for others to enter Lower or Upper Palaeolithic sites as well - heck, even later sites if they so desire.

All these features may sound a bit of an overkill. In a sense there is a bit of overengineering here, since many of the new features go well beyond the original scope of the project. However, I plan on releasing the PaleoArchives platform as open source software, so that other projects may benefit from it, and I think all the new features will make it quite appealing and will therefore ensure its longevity.

International symposium on chert and other knappable materials

by Cornel  

Two weeks ago I participated at a very interesting international conference on chert and other knappable materials. As you can tell from the published abstracts, a wide range of topics were discussed and quite a few interesting results were presented. What's more, both the poster and the oral presentations will soon be available on the web for anyone to see, or at least that is my understanding (my own poster is already available here).

It was a small symposium with only fifty attendees, although more participated online via teleconferencing, and all presentations were sequential. I found this to be particularly refreshing, since I didn't have to run between sessions or, even worse, choose between talks as at the SAAs, and it was possible to meet everyone and discuss people's research at leisure. It was, in short, a very pleasant experience, which ended with a long but rewarding field trip to two of the most important Palaeolithic sites in Romania, Ripiceni-Izvor and Mitoc-Malul Galben. Although the site of Ripiceni-Izvor is currently under water due to the construction of a dam, I was very happy to finally set foot near the site, since it was one of the few Romanian Middle Palaeolithic sites which I had not visited before.

Maps, maps, and more maps!

by Cornel  

I've been doing a lot of GIS work recently, and as a result I've become more or less obsessed with geospatial data. While hunting for good, free sources on the web I came across two sites (one of them was pointed out by a colleague actually) that I thought I should share. The first provides geological and topographic (both raster, unfortunately) data for Romania (see also this for downloadable content); the second provides 1:100.000 geological maps for Serbia. While the Romanian maps are a bit out of date, the resolution is very good (they have old topo maps with 1:20.000 coverage for almost the entire country!). It's incredible what one may find on the web with a bit of digging!

On the other side of the IT fence

by Cornel  

I thought I got it. I really did. Back when I used to work as a systems analyst/systems administrator (at a university) I sometimes cringed when people would ask me all those silly questions - Why doesn't this work? Why can't I find the tool I used regularly a couple of years ago? How do I configure this software? At times my first thought was "well, RTFM!" I knew all too well that the answer to most of those questions was just a few Google searches away; ok, in some cases things were a bit more complicated, but for the most part I would just get frustrated by the fact that people refused to spend time learning the tools they needed for their jobs... I thought I understood their position though. In retrospect, however, I think I was just fooling myself into thinking that I did.

I'm on the other side of the fence now, and my perspective has, shall we say, widened. I haven't touched Fedora in quite a few years, and a lot of things have changed; I also haven't done any serious work with Linux recently. Today I needed to configure something seemingly trivial on my brand spanking new Fedora 19 virtual machine, but it turned out to be more complicated than I expected. I knew what I wanted done, I knew the theory behind it, I knew the general steps needed to implement the desired configuration, but over the last three years things have moved on in the Linux world and not everything behaves the way it used to... so what should have taken me a couple of minutes became a time sink, and one thing I don't have now is time. My priorities have changed, and Linux is now simply a tool, not an end in itself; the time I spent "figuring things out" could have been spent doing much more productive work, or hey, you know, spending time with my wife, doing house chores, etc. So, I think I really get it now. I always tried to be as polite, helpful, and friendly as possible, but I still feel the need to apologize for all those "RTFM!" moments.

Bringing this blog back to life...

by Cornel  

So, I haven't been updating this blog for a while, and a lot has changed over the last two years. For one, I've started a PhD at the Max Planck Institute, which means that we've had to relocate to Germany. My wife and I have been in Leipzig for just over a year now and, with the exception of my German, things are progressing pretty well (although it's been an incredibly busy year). It took us a long time to get used to "student life" and to living in a new city (and country!), but things are finally falling into place, and I'm hoping that I can keep this blog updated at least semi-regularly from now on.

What in God's name...

by Cornel  

What in God's name have they done to Fedora?! I haven't used the distribution in a few years, but today I decided to give the latest version (19) a try and, boy, it's a mess. I have no doubt that there are many cool features that I will discover soon enough, but my first impression was that the default graphical interface is confusing and awkward to an extreme - no logout button, no desktop icons, a weird menu system that shows everything but the stuff you're actually interested in, and a desktop switcher that is anything but intuitive. The terminal is burried as if the developers tried to get rid of it, applications such as emacs are missing by default, the package manager asks for the root password each time you try to install an application (this is just annoying - ask once and be done with it!), etc... the list of annoyances just goes on and on. Are the Fedora developers trying to emulate Windows 8 with its excessive focus on tablets and touch interfaces? Seems like a pretty silly move given how "well" Microsoft's approach has been received.

Note: Before embarking on the long and risky road that will, hopefully, lead me to an academic position in Archaeology, I used to work in IT as a UNIX systems analyst.

Evolving the German ideal?

by Cornel  

First of all, I should say that this post shouldn't be taken too seriously. It presents a simple elaboration on my first impressions of the Neanderthal museum, which I visited last summer. I must also note that at the time of my visit I was exceedingly tired, as I went there directly from the airport after a 20 hour flight from Vancouver, so it's quite possible that I missed or misinterpreted a few things - if that's the case, please send me a message and I will be happy to correct my post. Ok, with that out of the way, let me say that although I found the museum to be alright, I was a bit disappointed; It's certainly no Musée National de Préhistoire. Honestly, I am not sure what I was expecting to see, but given the fame of the site I was hoping the museum would be a bit more engaging and that it would have more original artifacts on display. What I found instead was a neat yet small museum, perfectly suited for school children and the average layman but basically of no real interest for visitors who already know something about Neanderthals. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad museum - it actually has some interesting Neanderthal reconstructions, the audio tours are good for the layperson, and it's clearly worth the visit if you happen to be in or near Dusseldorf. But there was only one thing that made a strong impression on me: I couldn't help but think that the main display cases on the second floor showcased nothing less than hominin evolution towards the German ideal.

As you can see in the pictures attached below, the first in the series is a female australopithecine. Now, I don't know, maybe australopithecines did have the bodies of well proportioned (by late 20th/early 21st century standards) modern human females, but I find it a bit surprising that they had no body hair whatsoever - indeed, although not shown in the picture, her legs looked freshly waxed. You may, of course, think I'm reading too much into it, but you should see the care with which the pubic hair was put in place by those who made the reconstruction, as well as the amount of body hair present in other reconstructions - the lack of hair was no mistake. All in all, I found the australopithecine slightly... bizarre.

Next in the series is the Neanderthal. Looking somewhat eastern European, the black haired Neanderthal was more or less OK. Not too many comments on him. Then comes the Cro-Magnon, who, fittingly enough, looks a bit French. The black haired woman certainly had an air of modernity about her. Last but certainly not least, an oddly "northern" looking fellow, tall, blonde, and blue eyed, closes the series. And there you have it. Human evolution, from australopithecines to Germans.

I don't want to necessarily criticize the museum for this display - after all, other reconstructions of modern humans there looked less stereotypically German and, ultimately, the modern human had to resemble someone or other... why not a German? Still, not all Germans are blonde, nor tall, and certainly not all modern humans fit the ideal presented here. I don't really have a ready answer for how this series should have looked, nor is it my role to give one. What I can say is that the visual reinforcement of certain discourses have the strange power of perpetuating structures of perception (in a Bourdieuian sense), and that can be a dangerous thing. In any case, what I wanted to point out is simply the biases inherent in our reconstructions of past as well as in our readings of the present - my own post, and my reading of the display, is certainly no exception.

Histories of archaeology

by Cornel  

I've always been interested in the more, shall we say, juicy aspects of the history of the discipline, in the personal histories of archaeologists who left their mark. Archaeologists are interesting people, and histories of the discipline could indeed easily read like popular novels if someone chose to write them as such (see the interview with Sally Binford that I linked to in a previous post); yet the majority of said histories are dry and, frankly, quite boring, focusing on the genealogies of ideas but all too often leaving out the personal context in which these developed. While it's perfectly understandable why this is so, and while it is certainly easy to find "juicy" bits on most archaeologists with a bit of digging (pardon the pun), I also think it would be useful to pay more attention to the people rather than just their ideas. Nothing develops in a vacuum, and most (if not all) of the big intra-disciplinary debates (e.g. the Pompeii premise, the Binford-Bordes debate on the meaning of Mousterian variability, the Spaulding-Ford debate on typology, to name but a few) cannot be fully understood without understanding something about the personalities of those who engaged in them. Indeed, there is more to scientific debates than just science - there are personal egos and ambitions at work, reputations to maintain and destroy; there are also personal reasons for engaging in particular types of research or, indeed, from turning away from certain areas or subjects in great disillusion.

In this post I simply wanted to point out the interesting work done by Pamela Jane Smith, a Cambridge researcher and a former student of Bruce Trigger. Her Personal Histories project is fascinating, and I'm eager to see what will come out of her new(ish) initiative, the Histories of Archaeology Research Network.

virtual skeletons

by Cornel  

I'm currently TAing a course on Forensic Anthropology, one which, for a variety of reasons beyond anyone's control, does not have a good lab component. Because of this, I really wanted to share a few good links to virtual skeletons with my students. After doing a bit of research (admittedly not too much), however, I came to realize that for some reason virtual skeletons are hard to come by on the web, at least free ones of decent quality. There is the good old eskeletons, but I wanted something a better. A couple of weeks ago a colleague was kind enough to forward me a link to a project sponsored by the University of Toronto: http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~sawchukl/. It is a digital atlas of the human skeleton which does the job. Nothing can replace a proper lab session, of course, but I think this atlas is a pretty good learning tool, one worth sharing with the world.

That's it for now. I'm in the middle of writing papers and I don't have a lot of time for blogging, although I really hope to be able to start posting some informal article reviews on miscellaneous Neanderthal related topics later on this week.

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