Month: May 2011

Industrial design of the Paleolithic

After I posted my sad tale of lost antiquities, I went back down to the basement and gave the search another shot. Thanks to some minor flooding last autumn, I’d carted most of our still-packed boxes around fairly recently, so had a pretty good idea where my Paleolithic tools might be. Two boxes into my search, I found them.

Paleolithic Tools

Each tool is fascinating, but one in particular has intrigued me and made me question the label of “crude” I had applied in my review of the Burke Museum. I learned to respect the maker of this tool — presumably a scraper — only after turning it over and over in my hand, until suddenly it just fit. The basic problem was that I was trying to hold the tool the way they’re displayed in museums, with the “interesting” side up (below, left). By turning the tool the other way around (below, right), all its bumps and ridges slipped into place.

Paleolithic Scraper - Right-handed (3) Paleolithic Scraper - Right-handed (4)

Specifically, the bulb of percussion slips under my thumb and the ridges fit my fingers. After a little more experimentation, I found two more ways of holding the scraper. It even has a plane where you can rest your finger to apply greater pressure (below, left) while cutting.

Paleolithic Scraper - Right-handed (5) Paleolithic Scraper - Right-handed (7)

But all of that is just “basic functionality.” At first, I thought the tip had broken off, but in reality the exposed cortex appears to be part of the “design,” with several stripes from the ancient sedimentary stone left in place. Similarly, the flint-knapper has left a strip of the lighter-colored cortex in place along the non-cutting edge. These little touches add absolutely no functional value to the tool. They’re just, well, beautiful.

The reason I love archaeology is less about the science (though I’m passionate about that, too) and more about the connections I feel with the people who came before me. Through this hunk of stone, I find myself connected to one specific person who did something special with their chert scraper more than 18,000 years ago.

And that connection is something special indeed.

Mousterian Dawn

Poetry deserves a cheesy science-fiction chaser. An original sci-fi short story follows…

Doris McDonald lived in a rent-controlled apartment on the eighty-fifth floor of a building overlooking the Mare Imbrium. After retiring from the observatory with a government pension, she could live comfortably, well compensated for the fact that her body – weakened after decades serving science up here in the sky – could never go home. She chose to live frugally, however, her only luxury a pair of GeneCorp® NeanderClones™ shipped up from below.

She could hear the female, Polly, humming as she washed up after serving dinner. The tune was in a scale unlike anything in the complete library of world music built into the apartment. Polly’s singing always made the hair stand up on the back of Doris’ neck.

It’s not that she was afraid of her ‘Clones – attacks on their Modern masters were a thing of the past, ever since the company had begun neutering the males before delivery. In moments of real panic, shock collars artfully disguised as Celtic torques could be activated at the touch of a button. The anthropological anachronism annoyed only scholars of ancient history. NeanderClone owners had nothing to fear.

Read the complete story after the jump! Keep reading…

Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-134 ascent highlights

With or without a musical soundtrack, there’s something inherently stirring about watching a spacecraft lift off into orbit.

In this case, it’s the very last launch for Space Shuttle Endeavour. Thanks to all the cameras designed to ensure the Columbia tragedy never recurs, we can watch the launch from just about every angle.

Renovating Building 112

Workmen are remodeling our office.
     They gather by the dozen
          to eat breakfast – sock caps low
over foreheads, face masks slung
     around necks. One tells a joke
          I can’t hear, and their laughter
rumbles over plastic chairs, cash registers,
     condiments, the salad bar.
          From my corner booth I can see
cranes that tower over evergreens
          marked with bright pink ribbons
               for the chainsaw. I look back
and they’re gone – nothing left
     but napkins stacked neatly
          on the center of the table.

I wrote this poem almost exactly four years ago, when I frequently stopped for coffee or breakfast in a Microsoft building between my bus stop and my own building. My product group has moved to another satellite campus since then, but I was back in Building 112 this morning for a meeting and overheard a team of corporate movers swapping stories about their accident-prone supervisor. I finished my coffee, looked up, and they were gone. I immediately thought of this poem.

I owe the poem’s current form and other improvements to feedback from David Wagoner while he was the Poet in Residence at Richard Hugo House.