Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Golden Boy

In 1666, a fire destroyed most of the old medieval City of London and part of the area west of it. It started on Pudding Lane and spread through neighborhoods of densely packed wood and tar paper buildings on a dry east wind. It was a predictable disaster, so obvious that even an astrologer could see it coming. And sure enough one did forecast the fire. He ended up being arrested and tried for having started it, but was acquitted and escaped hanging. Other scapegoats included Catholics and foreigners, and a French imbecile was actually hanged. But the best scapegoat of all was the sin of gluttony.

The fire reached its furthest extent at Pye Corner, where Cock Lane meets Giltspur Street. In a niche above the corner is a little golden cherub, which was originally attached to a pub that stood on the site. The inscription reads: "This Boy is in Memmory Put up for the late Fire of LONDON Occasion'd by the Sin of Gluttony." Closer to ground level is an engraved plaque that explains "the boy was made prodigiously fat to enforce the moral."

He's also a monument to how things change, and don't. We've gotten so good at gluttony that the kid wouldn't even rate as pudgy today. The fact that we need to be explicitly told that this kid counted as "prodigiously fat" tells us that Londoners in the 1660s were amateurs when it comes to obesity. More interesting is the idea that divine intention could be conveyed via geography. Sadly, that's still with us. Think of the people who believe 9/11 was God's punishment for America's sins.

To the nonconformist preacher (whoever he was) who came up with the gluttony theory, the fact that the fire had done so much damage was clear evidence that God was pissed off. Fair enough, but why was He so mad? The City was the commercial center of London at the time, and home to its busiest port and biggest market. The preacher saw this as a clear sign that the problem was gluttony; otherwise, the fire would've wiped out parts of the city more notorious for other sins: Drury Lane--home to actresses and brothels--if he'd been punishing lewdness, Westminster for lying, Billingsgate for blasphemy, and so on.

Gluttony seems like a stretch. No doubt the rich residents indulged in it, but their stone houses were surrounded by wooden tenements crowded by a whole lot more poor people who couldn't afford gluttony. Besides, gluttony is a knock-on effect of greed and envy, the driving forces behind commerce and accessible to the rich and poor alike. And why not lust? Like all ports, London's had its fair share of brothels, including the legal ones on Cock Lane and Stew Lane ("stew" being the word for "brothel" at the time). And the fire destroyed over 80 parish churches and St. Paul's cathedral; how did those figure in the divine punishment mix?

Another version of the story holds that the the divine lesson was written not so much in geography itself, but the names attached to it: the fire started on Pudding Lane and finally stopped at Pye (Pie) Corner. How could He make it any clearer?

But here too the clarity is a little problematic. True, Pudding Lane was home to bakehouses, including the royal baker to Charles II, where the fire seems to have started. Today, the word "pudding" connotes a baked dish, if you're British, or a kind of custard, if you're American. But in the 1600s it referred to both sausage and the entrails from which they were made. According to John Stowe's 1603 description of London, Pudding Lane was named after entrails, since the street ran from the "skalding House for Hogges" in Eastcheape to the docks on the Thames, "and their puddinges with other filth of Beastes, are voided downe that way to theyr dung boates." In a similar vein, "Pye" referred to the magpie on a sign that once hung from a tavern on the spot. So in terms of original meanings, the fire basically ran from Pig Entrails Lane to Magpie Corner. Hard to know how to read divine intention in those.

But one of the fun things about place names is that we interpret them in terms of their contemporary meanings, not their original ones. As word meanings change over time, so does the way we think about places attached to those words. So it may well be that in 1666 Pudding Lane and Pye Corner connoted tasty treats, as they do today, if you're willing to forgive the archaic "pie" spelling.

Other names haven't fared so well. Two examples: Butt Hole Road in South Yorkshire, England, and Intercourse, Pennsylvania. "Butt" in this case probably referred to cistern, or more likely a pond or well that supplied one. But we don't much think of cisterns anymore, and especially in the US, "butt" means something else, especially in the context of "hole." Likewise, when "Intercourse" was so named, probably in the 18th or 19th century, it referred to commerce or conversation. During the 20th century, it became a polite word for sex, and thus the place name became chuckle-worthy.

Place names that have gained frisson from language shifts or lost referents are all over the place, and they add something to the landscape. It's hard to avoid forming an opinion about Bumpass Creek or Deadman Island, even if you know nothing about the places themselves. "Bumpass" and "Deadman" are family names that have been attached to dozens of places in the U.S. ("Deadman" place names show up over 600 times on USGS maps), but for most of us, it isn't the families we think of when we run across these places, and our experience of them is likely to be shaded, if only a little bit, but the sort-of-funny or sort-of-creepy meanings the names impart.

I'm sure the gluttony angle packed the pews for awhile in 1666, and it seems to have inspired a pub owner to commission the little gold statue of a kid to hang some blame on. It's nice that he's still around.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sinew? Where the Hell Would I get Sinew?

Two Really Big things happened between about 50,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago: 1) our ancestors spread themselves pretty much all over the world, and 2) really big animals went extinct everywhere except Africa. The connection between the one and the other seems pretty obvious, but obvious doesn't make right. Climate was also changing in big ways that could also have killed off the Pleistocene megafauna.

Debate's been going on for over a century as to which did them in, us or climate. As things stand now, it looks like both human hunting and climate change played a role. Without us, at least some of the mammoths, ground sloths, and other big animals would have been able to track the changing climate, as they did through dozens of previous glacial-interglacial cycles. On the other hand, it's a little hard to imagine how they could've survived us, even if climate hadn't posed much of a problem for them. We just wouldn't put up enormous mastodons trampling our crops and cities, or short-faced bears ravaging the suburbs of Heidelberg.

One of the reasons for our potent rise over the past 100,000 years has been a growing ability to use tools for things like hunting. Our pre-human ancestors figured out how to chip stones into bladed tools over a million years ago. Blades concentrate the relatively small amounts of muscle energy we're able to exert into very tiny areas. You can bludgeon something with a rock, but you can cut its eyes out with a sharpened rock, especially if you attach it to a pole. Throw the pole and you might even get away without getting trampled or gored.

The problem with spears is that the distance you can throw one is limited not only by strength, but arm length. Enter the atlatl, a simple arm extension. It's just a stick, maybe a couple of feet long, with a notch at one end that fits into the back end of a spear or dart. It effectively lengthens your arm, and thus increases the force you can muster to make it travel away from you.

Whatever damage we did to the Pleistocene megafauna, it certainly would've been less without the atlatl. If there's any doubt about that, take a look at this video of a 7 year-old getting a deer with a modern-day atlatl. (Do yourself a favor and stop once the "Rocky" theme starts.)

Kinda puts the megafauna extinction debate in a whole new light.

Last summer, I decided to add a lab on this business of paleolithic technology to a course called Evolution, Ecology, and Human Impact. And I decided to make an atlatl and some darts for a demonstration. It seemed simple enough, and ultimately, it was. But it was still pretty complicated, and it made me keenly aware of just how context-dependent all technology is.

I started with the atlatl itself. It was easy enough finding pictures of real atlatls from archeological digs, not to mention plans, how-to docs, and other info (for example, here and here). And videos on Youtube, of course. I decided to make mine using branch from a basswood tree growing in front of our house.

A couple of whacks with a decidedly non-paleolithic folding saw and some whittling, and I had it all roughed out. Looked like this was going to be a cinch.

The next step was the darts. I took a walk down the river looking for some maple or birch saplings, but couldn't find any that weren't branched or badly bent. I didn't have the time to cure and straighten them. Youtube told me that river cane would work, but we're too far east for that. After a lot of unsuccessful trekking around, I came home and found some good-looking candidates in the mock orange bush in the back yard. So I harvested some of those and set them in the garage to dry. A few days later, I noticed they were cracking. That was never going to pan out.

It was starting to dawn on me how far away from an atlatl-sort of world I really was. If I were a real paleo-dude, I'd have grown up knowing how to do all of this stuff and wouldn't have needed Google or Youtube. I'd probably have a supply of cured saplings. I'd have a campfire next to a stream, so I could soak my cured sticks, sit around the fire shooting the shit with my paleo-buds and straightening my dart shafts. I'd also have a supply of feathers for fletching, probably from a turkey or goose I'd eaten for dinner the day before. And I'd have some pine pitch and sinew lying around. But where the hell would I get sinew in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania? Road kill, but that's messy, unless you're really lucky. And even then, I have no idea how to process it. There's only so much time I could spend Googling, and only so much mess Anne's willing to put up with.

I worked on the atlatl itself, whittling it down to a pleasant shape and getting the little nub carved down the way I wanted it. I thought about the dart problem for a few days and finally gave up, went down to the hardware store, and bought some dowels. They're about 4' long--about 3' shorter than they really should be--but good enough. I sent my daughter to WalMart to buy some feathers in the craft section. They're dyed gaudy colors and pretty beat up, but they'll do. I'd found an excellent video on how to fletch the darts, I decided to just go with hot-melt glue, the modern equivalent of pine pitch and ashes resin. I sharpened the ends of the darts a bit, but they really need a little weight to move the center of gravity up towards the front. I think a 6d nail and some glue should work, but for now, they're just wood and a little more wobbly in flight than they should be.

I took the whole shebang down to the little park at the end of the street and gave it a try. I wanted to see how far I could throw the darts without the atlatl. As it turns out, not very far. The best throw I got was about 20 yards. The first 10 or so throws with the atlatl went a lot less than that, and pretty much straight into the ground. But once I got it down, I could launch it a good 50 or 60 yards. That was pretty gratifying.

Except for the matter of the tips, I'm set up well enough to make the lab work. But I wanted to make at least one dart that had a bit of verisimilitude to it. I found a nice, 7' long, nearly perfectly straight bamboo pole in the garage and figured that'd do. My friend Eli gave me a bag of turkey feathers he'd been saving, just in case. I fletched them as per Youtube using some carpet thread that at least had the virtue of being from the late 1800s (my mother in-law and her family never threw anything away). So far so good. On the other end, I drilled out the bamboo to hold the foreshaft with the dart tip. It needed some reinforcement, so I soaked a rawhide dog chew toy to soften it, cut some strips, whipped the end, and let it dry. Rawhide must've been the plastic of the paleo world. It's pretty remarkable stuff, as long as it stays dry.

For the tip, I decided to use an actual paleolithic point I'd picked up in the Sahara. I've never been able to find out much about it, but I did see some points very much like it from the same region at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Lacking sinew, I wandered around downtown looking for some waxed linen and finally ended up buying a wad of cobbler's thread (waxed nylon) from a real cobbler, Angelo, who fixes my shoes. And in lieu of pitch, I went back to the hot melt glue gun. I carved a foreshaft from a maple sapling I'd chopped out of the hedge last year, hafted the Egyptian point to it, and called it good enough.

So I've got a dart that looks plausible enough, but it could only exist in this particular place and time, I suppose. It's got bamboo from Asia, feathers from North America, rawhide from Argentina, and a point from Africa. I accidentally poked myself in the foot with it, and I'm pretty sure it'd pierce a ground sloth's hide without any trouble at all.

That said, the interchangable nature of the foreshaft means that I can add even more potent warheads. I read somewhere that the one below is even mightier than a sword.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Gilgamesh, Ish, and the Post-Apocalyptic Information Age

He had been in the library hundreds of times before, as a matter of course, during his years at the university. But now under the changed conditions, he felt a strange new sense of awe. Here rested in storage the wisdom by which civilization had been built, and could be rebuilt. … Everything was here. All the knowledge!
George R. Stewart
Earth Abides

Literate societies value aggregated, ordered, and accessible information and create temple warehouse structures to house it. Their architecture conveys the message that our information will be well-protected and safely delivered to the future.

If the past is a guide, it won’t be. Ebla. Ugarit. Ctesiphon. Alexandria and Pergamum. The Imperial Library of Constantinople. The Library of Celsus. None of them lasted. They fell to Babylonians, Akkadians, Medes, Sea Peoples, Turkik Muslims and Arabs, Copts and European Crusaders, people with different priorities who valued different information.

The information that did make to their future/our present is mostly fragmentary and accidental. The clay tablets stored in Ashurbanipal’s library in Nineveh were fired as if in a kiln when the building burned in 612 BCE, making them durable enough for the two-millennium-plus journey to the British Museum. The destruction and preservation of the library at Ebla was even more remarkable, because the burning wooden racks holding the tablets collapsed in a systematic way, preserving not only the tablets, but their librarians’ careful ordering. Whatever information was stored on less durable media—calfskin and papyrus scrolls, palm leaves, waxed boards—and even on clay tablets unfortunate enough not to have been burned, is gone forever.

Ice stores a surprising amount of information encoded in molecules, specks of dust, and bits of animals. Where it has been preserved in orderly layers, as in parts of Antarctica, Greenland, and tropical mountain glaciers, it forms a kind of library that can be read with the help of mass spectrometers and other esoteric instruments. The story it tells is about changing environments, and the news is fascinating and troubling. Seal hairs recovered from Antarctic ice tell of global heavy metal pollution from Chinese and Roman and Mesoamerican smelting centuries ago. Antarctic ice cores tell a story of Ice Age comings and goings stretching back 800,000 years. The finely banded ice pulled from the summit of Greenland tell a shorter story in much greater detail, and the plot is not an entirely happy one.

The good news is that the past 10,000 years have been a remarkably stable time in Earth history. Global temperatures have varied little. Freed from the necessity of constantly having to move (or die) every time the climate shifted, we humans were able to settle down, figure out how to grow our own food, tinker with the material world, figure out how to live in dense concentrations, develop civilizations, and to store and retrieve information. But the longer term record tells us that this probably won’t last for long. We can probably expect our long summer to end eventually, and that sometime in the coming millennia we’ll have to abandon locales like New York, Montreal, Chicago, London and Moscow, give them back to the ice, and relocate further south. Plot spoiler alert: climate will change.

The bad news from Greenland is that the change isn’t always gentle. There are thresholds in the system that generate surprises that must have caused problems for our distant ancestors, and very likely will cause problems for us sooner rather than later. We’re very likely pushing the climate system towards such a threshold now, poking the beast with sticks, as one climatologist put it. And the surprise, when it comes, won’t be pleasant. What will happen to our information then?

George R. Stewart’s classic post-apocalyptic novel, Earth Abides tells the story of a young graduate student, Ish Williams, who survives a devastating plague that wipes out most of his fellow humans while he was up in the mountains doing fieldwork and recovering from a rattlesnake bite. He makes a new life for himself amidst the decaying infrastructure, the family and community he gathers around him meeting their needs mostly by scavenging leftovers from the former world’s bounty. Scholar that he is, one of Ish’s high priorities is protecting the Berkeley University library. He tries and fails to pass on the skill of reading and a reverence for the information stored in the libraries. He comes to recognize that the task of passing on the light of knowledge is futile and teaches the younger generations something that will become truly useful: how to make bows and arrows. Different information for different priorities.

I read Earth Abides as a graduate student while doing fieldwork in and around the rattlesnake-studded landscape of White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Its infrastructure was decaying in the wake of the military-industrial complex’s own short-lived apocalypse, defunding after the Cold War ended. It was impossible not to identify with Ish in that lonely setting. I think about him now in the context of the ice-bound messages and wonder, if worse comes to worst and things fall apart, what will happen to our information, and will it really matter?

As in the past, what survives and what perishes when the symbiotic relationship between information and system falls apart will depend on the nature of the storage media and the particular mode of destruction. Fire will be unkind to paper, as will water. So will mold, mildew, insects, and furry little mammals that will find nourishment, substrates, and perfect nesting material in our books. Still, the sheer bulk of printed matter in the world today will probably confer a fair amount of momentum. It’s easy enough to imagine old encyclopedias, textbooks, forgotten boxes of self-help books, romance novels, instruction manuals, and magazines buried in the collapsed ruins of self a storage facility out in the Mohave that might last for centuries. Our landfills, sealed off from rainfall above and groundwater below will also be rich mines for future archeologists, if such a role ever evolves again.

And what of our global store of digital information? What if, by the time things fall apart, the vast bulk of our fiberware has been converted to digits and stored in utilitarian temple warehouses scattered all over the world and no more glamorous than server farms or thumb drives? The vastly distributed and redundant nature of the medium will greatly increase the odds that more and larger fragments will persist into the future. Except that it won’t.

Digital storage is enormously efficient and convenient, but it is also enormously brittle. Hard storage media, like magnetic and optical disks, are probably nowhere near as stable as fired clay tablets. Data stored in electronic memory will fare even worse. Its continued viability depends on a continuous flow of electrons through the devices that store them. And that electron flow is utterly dependant on the continual functioning of a immensely complex social and technological system that, more than likely, has little resilience beyond some critical point. In Earth Abides, the hydroelectric plant continues to pump out electrons until, its babysitters and minders all dead, some small problem spins out of control and it simply stops working. The same fate will befall whatever generating systems we come up with in the future if the system becomes wobbly and begins to unravel, then reaches the critical thread that holds the cloth together. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is probably a more likely prophesy than the relatively gentle apocalypse Stewart envisioned.

Even if we are lucky, even if we find ways to permanently store our digits cold, accessing them will depend on the survival of at least a few of the complex machine intermediaries that translate them from stored 1’s and stored 0’s into something the human eye or ear and mind can take in. It will also require the survival of at least a few human beings who know how to make them work. Will they bother? If things fall apart, priorities will have changed so drastically that little of the information we cherish today will have any use, value, or interest at all.

Perhaps millennia from now, complex society evolves anew and spawns a class of citizens with the ability, the leisure, and the interest to excavate the rubble and find ways to decode and decipher once again the stored 1’s and 0’s. What then? Will they be willing to wade through the cosmic heaps of informational garbage that we are piling up at an exponential rate in search of a digital copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Or will it be easier just to start with the clay tablets themselves, and bypass our era altogether?