HMS Surprise

After posting a quote from one of Patrick O”Brian’s novels earlier this week, I remembered that I had some more Aubrey-Maturin related material to share.

About 15 months ago I posted some nighttime pictures I had taken on the San Diego waterfront including this one of a sailing ship whose name I did not know. As Mr. Peculiar pointed out in the comments, this was the HMS Surprise, replica ship used in the filming of the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, based on O’Brian’s novels.

Last September I was in San Diego doing some field work, and was able to take an afternoon off to tour the Maritime Museum of San Diego, a wonderful museum I recommend to you all, and where the HMS Surprise is moored.

The ship began its life as the Rose, built in Canada in 1970. Its design was based on British Admiralty plans used to build the frigate HMS Rose, which was launched in 1757.

Until 2001, the Rose was based on the east coast and used as a training ship for tall ship sailors. That year, it was bought by Twentieh Century Fox studios, who officially changed the name and modified it for use in filming the movie.

After the movie was completed and released in 2003 the Maritime Museum obtained the ship. It sails around San Diego harbor several times a year and you can pay to sail on board and pretend you are Russell Crowe.

If you have seen the movie before touring the ship, you can tell that it must have been used almost exclusively for exterior shots and that scenes set on board ship were shot on a sound stage. It was still fun to see. I also understand it was used to shoot scenes for one of the Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Happy Birthday Bella

It seems hard for us to believe, but our granddaughter Isabella Wilson had her third birthday a few days back. Connie and I were able to make a quick trip to California to participate in the festivities.

As you can see in this picture, Bella is in a princess phase right now and firmly believes that a tiara (she calls it her “tirana-crown”) should be part of her daily attire. Princess-like appearance is one thing, but princess-like behavior depends on which princesses you choose for role models. One of Bella’s favorite princesses is Princess Leia. While we were visiting, I watched one of her episodes of play where, while wearing her blue princess dress and tiara, she shot imaginary Imperial Stormtroopers with an imaginary blaster rifle while calling for an imaginary Han Solo (who happened to be me) to give her covering fire.

A warrior princess it is.

Historic Preservation Board

I am proud to announce that the Douglas County Commissioners have appointed me to a three year term on the County Historic Preservation Board. It’s a volunteer position and the Board is an advisory body that gives advice and makes recommendations to the county’s decision-making groups.

Here’s the Board’s mission statement:

The Board conducts research on historic resources in the County; advises property owners on methods for preserving sites and artifacts; makes recommendations to the Planning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners regarding zoning and subdivision issues related to historic resources; facilitates the collection, cataloging, preservation and interpretation of donated historic artifacts; and works to educate County residents on historic matters.

It sounded like fun to me, so I applied last fall. You can find out more about the Board and Douglas County history and prehistory here at the County website.

Species Shift

I have noted a change in some of the visitors to our feeders this winter: one of our most common year-round birds, House Finches, have almost completely disappeared. Another common winter visitor, White-crowned Sparrows, have also gone missing. Their places appear to have been taken by large numbers of American Tree Sparrows, who rarely showed up in previous years.

Most of our other usual winter birds are here however, like this Junco, waiting with one of the American Tree Sparrows for a turn at the feeder during last Sunday’s snow storm.

Here’s a dual portrait of our missing friends taken in March 2009.

Dr. Stephen Maturin on Falcons and Wives

During the hymns and psalms, which a certain rivalry between Surprises and Dromedaries rendered more vehement than musical, his attention wandered, returning to his anonymous letter and his thoughts of Diana – of her particular sort of faithfulness – of her extremely spirited resentment of any slight – and it occurred to him that she was not unlike a falcon he had known when he was a boy in his godfather’s house in Spain, a haggard, a wild-caught peregrine of extraordinary dash and courage, death to herons, ducks and even geese, very gentle with those she liked but wholly irreconcilable and indeed dangerous if she was offended. Once the young Stephen had fed a goshawk before the falcon, and she had never come to him again, only staring implacably with that great fierce dark eye. ‘I shall never offend Diana, however,’ he observed.

Treason’s Harbour, Patrick O’Brian

Primitive dogs

 Jim and I have been invited to speak at an international conference on the use of aboriginal/primitive dogs that will take place this summer in South Africa. We’ll be giving one presentation to the general session (on the use of Aziats/Central Asian Ovcharkas to guard domestic sheep in the Rocky Mountains) and two poster presentations (one on the benefits and challenges to the use of livestock protection dogs, and the other on the use of LPDs in association with large carnivore populations). While we look forward to sharing our experiences, we’re excited at the prospect of being with other people who live in close association with working dogs around the world. Our friend Guverner from Turkey is expected to attend, as well as our friends Atila and Sider from Bulgaria. Having this group in one room is reason enough for us to make the effort to attend. We’re told that an expert on C.A. Ovcharkas from Tajikistan plans to attend also.

The dogs in the image above are Turkish lions – native Kangal dogs working to protect a sheep herd that are just out of the frame. These are adolescent pups. (As always, click on an image for a larger view.)

The next two images are of guardian dogs in Mongolia – typical of the dogs we saw in our travels there.

The next three images are Spanish mastiffs, ,working to protect sheep, goat and cattle herds.

 This is a Transmontano Mastiff in Portugal.

 And last but not least, the Bulgarian Karakachan.

The upcoming Africa trip was unexpected, and we are using the opportunity to travel there to acquire the remaining images needed for a black-and-white photography exhibit I’ve been working on for seven years. United States Artists is backing the exhibit project, called Portraits Of Pastoralism, and this crowd-source funding program is doing a funding challenge for us through March 20. If you are interested, have a look at the project page, and be sure to watch the video where you’ll see some of the images in the exhibit, as well as a sheep busily picking my pockets as I try to talk seriously about the project.

Hot Links

Look at this collection of gorgeous pictures of a spiny trilobite. I’d never seen one of these before.

According to this study, our preagricultural ancestors had healthier mouths and teeth than we do. Is this a surprise?

It is apparent to me that every few months, there is another press release citing a new radiocarbon date or some DNA evidence addressing the final time line for the demise of Neanderthal populations in Europe: they went extinct earlier than we thought, later than we thought, there was (or wasn’t) a Neanderthal refuge in southern Spain, etc. I shouldn’t be cranky about this, as it’s obvious that the purpose of a press release is to emphasize how important, special, unique or definitive a particular finding is. But in the case of large, complex regional questions like this, in the future there are always going to be more radiocarbon dates or new DNA techniques adding pieces to the puzzle and all we can say is that as of right now, this is what the data tell us.

In what appears to be more definitive chronometric news, new radiocarbon dates have shown that the famous Paleolithic statuette of the Lion Man of Ulm , originally excavated in Germany in 1939, dates to 40,000 years ago.  This is older than previously thought and makes it the oldest known figurative sculpture.

A new DNA study just released finds that a number of physical traits common in Asian populations, such as thick hair, dense sweat glands, and some skin features, arose from a single mutation that occurred 30,000 years ago.

Linguists, psychologists and computer scientists at UC Berkeley and the Univeristy of British Columbia have developed a statistical-based computer model that they believe will help them reconstruct ancestral “proto-languages” from known historic languages. I always have a tendency to wonder about these and how you can judge their accuracy.

Canadian and Spanish marine archaeologists are co-operating on the reconstruction of Canada’s oldest shipwreck. The San Juan, a Basque galleon used for whaling, sank off the Labrador coast in the 1560s. I keep expecting that archaeologists in the Maritimes will find 15th century European sites or shipwrecks. There is much circumstantial, but not definitive, evidence, well-covered in Brian Fagan’s book Fish on Friday, that Basque, Gascon, and Portugese fisherman and whalers exploited the fisheries of the Grand Banks in the late 1300s and 1400s. Those that knew about it did their best to keep it a secret to exclude competition. Fagan speculates that Columbus may have known quite a bit about this prior to his 1492 voyage.

A Literary Conversation

Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner suffered from a situation that affects many authors: his novels and stories got good reviews but he was not rewarded with good sales. Throughout most of his career, he was plagued by financial insecurity.

To be completely fair, this insecurity didn’t keep Faulkner from owning an ante-bellum mansion, his own airplane, owning numbers of show-jumping horses, or ordering top-of-the-line suits on account from Phil A. Halle in Memphis. But I guess we all have our own baseline.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Faulkner was able to make enough money to keep body and soul together by taking screenwriting jobs in Hollywood. Faulkner hated the work, hated the long separations from his family, and hated being away from his native Mississippi that was the source of inspiration for his work. While in California however, he would often go hunting or on field trips to the countryside to break the tedium of being trapped in Los Angeles.

In 1932, on one of his screenwriting stints, he was working on scripts with the famed director Howard Hawks. One weekend he went on a brief trip with Hawks and one of Hawks’ friends who had a .410 over-and-under shotgun that Faulkner admired so much he wanted one like it. The friend was movie idol Clark Gable.

In Hawks’ car they drove one fall night into the Imperial Valley for some dove-hunting the next day. Hawks began to talk about books. Instead of freezing, as he usually did when people began to talk literature, Faulkner entered into the conversation. Though intelligent, Gable was not literary, and he remained silent. Finally, he ventured a question.

“Mr. Faulkner,” he said, “what do you think somebody should read if he wants to read the best modern books? Who would you say are the best living writers?”

After a moment Faulkner answered. “Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner.”

Gable took a moment to absorb that information. “Oh,” he said, recovering, “do you write?”

“Yes, Mr. Gable,” Faulkner replied. “What do you do?”

From Faulkner: A Biography, William Blotner

Napoleon Chagnon is Still Standing

I was surprised by this fairly objective article in the NY Times on the remarkable life and controversial career of cultural anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. This story is an example in microcosm of the descent of cultural anthropology over the last thirty years into mindless political correctness.

Chagnon was famous for his 1960s field work with the Yanomamo, and his book on them was required reading in a number of classes I took both as an undergraduate and in graduate school. Over the years his description of the Yanomamo as an inherently violent people fell out of favor as flawed and too judgmental, but his biggest sin in the eyes of many cultural anthropologists was his opinion that some aspects of human behavior are based on genetic information passed from parents to children. To many anthropologists, that smacked of the Eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th century that used Darwinian ideas to justify racist efforts to “improve” the gene pool. Lamentably, his critics quickly defaulted to calling him a racist and a Nazi in the late 1970s, and the battle has been on ever since.

The attacks culminated in a non-scholarly book published in 2000 that accused him of fabricating field work results and of intentionally conspiring to cause a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo. An objective view of these charges would indicate most of them are specious. Chagnon hasn’t helped himself by alienating some people with his large ego and prickly personality, but the attacks on him have gone far beyond anything reasonable. Advanced genetic research over the last 10-15 years shows he wasn’t far off on some of his opinions. Chagnon feels vindicated by his election to the National Academy of Sciences last year.

Key quotes:

From Chagnon – “The last bastions of resistance to evolutionary theory are organized religion and cultural anthropology.” Speaks for itself.

From one of Chagnon’s critics, Leslie Sponsel – “The charges have not all been disproven by any means.” Love the attitude – guilty until proven innocent.

Read The Whole Thing.