The Technology of our Ancestors

Another recumbent rider who also blogs on WordPress recently wrote about the pros and cons of using ancient technology in preference to modern.  He makes a good point, and he was careful to moderate it with the phrase “a rule of thumb.”  He wrote, “I have developed a rule of thumb when evaluating if a health claim is true or not; If early humans did it, then it is good, otherwise it is bad.”

I didn’t want to instigate a long, drawn-out argument on his blog about this – mostly because I have no real argument – but I believe the subject does beg discussion, and this blog has been cooking in my mind for a couple of days now.

I have some of the same philosophies about life, though the rules are more complex.  I make every effort to buy local organic produce, for instance, and there are lots of farms here about, but coffee doesn’t grow in northern California, so there’s an exception right there.  And we aren’t giving up our computers.

Some of you know that I’m active in the Society for Creative Anachronisms, and that I have long studied the arts of the sword and the bow.  However, if a crazed rapist were to break into the house, you know I’d reach for the Smith & Wesson.  Even the most enthusiastic SCA-er will remind you that it’s “The middle ages as they should have been.”  Like, no Plague, we wear eye-glasses, and if you try to take away women’s suffrage, we’ll kill you with your own sword.

And, of course, there are some of us who simply wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for 21st Century medicine.

So, can we agree that some modern solutions are better than bronze age ones?

Let’s take a closer look at some ancestral solutions, though.   The first question we have to ask is, “Which ancestors?”  The ones from pre-electric 19th century, or shall we go back as far as Australopithecus?  I’m not running around naked on the African savannah for anybody.  The original blog was about shoes, and the earliest known shoes are from bronze-age Mesopotamia.  That’s still a long ways to go back.

Difficult to pick, huh?

There is a popular television show on NBC called Revolution, and the major premise is that the entire world has been plunged into a permanent black out because all of the electricity has been turned off.  Remember that scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still? (The superb 1951 version, not the bastardized 2008 one.)  Well, it’s not 1951 anymore, and the consequences are even more dire.  Suddenly, we’re back to 19th Century agrarian communities.

Revolution is escapist post-apocalypse fantasy, though certainly not as much so as the book Dies the Fire (one of my absolute fave books, by the way!) Have you ever worked a farm using 19th Century technology?  I have.  It’s fun for about a week.  After that it’s just hard work, and lots of it.  And quite frankly, I don’t believe the current world’s population could be fed that way.

So, where do I stand on this issue?  Well, like almost everything else, it depends on the details.

More musings on this at another time.


Archery Fever

It started with The Hunger Games, and fortunately the movie was so well hyped that we had plenty of warning.  We all remember what happened when Lord of the Rings and Robin Hood were released.

Archery fever.


This is about a third of the people who showed up one Sunday for our archery public outreach

On the first and third Sunday of every month (except December and January), we invite the public to join us for a morning of archery instruction.  They come from all walks of life, with a heavy emphasis on families.  For a five dollar donation, we put a bow in their hand and an arrow in the other.  We check them for left-right eye dominance, we show them how to load the bow, how to stand, how to draw and many of the other minutiae of archery.

On an average day, we’ll see about thirty or forty people, with an even mix of ages and genders.

Then we noticed an increase in teenage girls, and one of the instructors told the rest of us about the books by Susanne Collins.

“This is going to get ugly,” somebody said, though we all smiled.  Like any other addicts, we love to get more newbies.

No sooner did we adjust to the increase caused by The Hunger Games then we were hit with fans of The Avengers.  Then, the final blow, Brave.

We split our normal three hour session into two sessions of one and half hours, bought more equipment and convinced more members to help out with instruction.

And we still had to turn people away.  I hate turning people away.  People started showing up forty minutes early in order to be insured a spot.  Our scorekeeper showed up to register people and give them numbers.

Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love.  We get a kick out of it when newbies finally put it all together and start hitting the target more than they miss.

Then we bring out The Balloons. Balloons have a magical quality.  You would be amazed at how much a student’s aim improves when there’s a balloon out there, laughing at you with every miss.  Yes, balloons can laugh.  Put one on a target next time you go to the range, and you’ll hear its shrill, mocking laughter every time an arrow doesn’t end its inflated existence.

Finally, it’s noon, and all the students leave and the instructors meet in the clubhouse for the after-action debriefing.  We talk about the students who shined the students who nearly shot their parents, the students who asked about club membership.

We know that Archery Fever will eventually burn itself out, even if the sport at the London Olympics it does enjoy a brief renaissance of popularity.  Eventually, we’ll be able to go back to sane Sundays, when only thirty or forty people show up.

Then somebody – I don’t remember who – mentioned that there’s a new television show this fall which has received a lot of publicity and seems to be very popular.  Revolution. A world with no electricity, and the inhabitants revert to archery.

“We’re doomed,” somebody said with a laugh.

More on Zombies and Traditional Archery

I still can’t believe that I got into this conversation about zombies and archery. Both topics are trending right now, due in part to a spat of movies featuring heroic archers – Liongate’s The Hunger Games, Pixar’s Brave, and Marvel Comic’s The Avengers. There is, perhaps, some synergistic effects from the London Olympics. You would not believe the circus that our Sunday Public Outreach has become at San Francisco Archers. It has become so popular that we have had to, sadly, turn people away.  There was even talk of giving people pagers and taking reservations. However, the current archery fever will eventually burn out, as it always does.  The typical teenager’s attention will be occupied by the next Hollywood topic du jour, and our Outreach sessions will return to sanity.

As to the popularity of zombies – who knows? They must appeal to some dark corner of our cultural mindset.  I’ve often thought of them as a metaphor for mindless consumerism.  


Norman Reedus as survivor Daryl Dixon on AMC’s The Walking Dead.

So, have you seen AMC’s series The Walking Dead? Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the show follows a small group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse in Georgia, USA. One of the characters, Daryl Dixon, uses a crossbow to both hunt for dinner and to off zombies. In the universe of The Walking Dead, the only way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain. Don’t think to much on this, just go with it.

I let myself get involved in an online discssion on this topic, and a user who identified himself or herself as a bowhunter commented that the character should use a compound bow, because the rate of fire is much faster.

I agreed, and added that a recurve has an even faster rate of fire, and hitting something the size of a human head from 30 yards (27 m) was a piece of cake, with decreasing probability from there.  

To which the bowhunter gave a surprisingly angry response. “You’re not going to be able to hit somebody in the head using traditional archery at 30 yards!”

Huh? I briefly considered posting this person’s internet ID on the SCA archery forums and other traditional archery sites, but that would be just mean.  

I believe most compound shooters vastly underestimate the value of traditional archery. Many become addicted to the gadgets, and simply wouldn’t have the first idea of how to aim a traditional recurve or longbow, and they simply have not seen good traditional archery.

So, I’m thinking: Why not make a video? Set up a course at the archery range using those styrofoam wig-thingies that look like robot heads, and then invite my trad-shooting friends to show off their skills? Unmarked yardage. Maybe I can even set up a few to move like zombies. I need to think about this some more.

Humans as Contraditctions

We humans are a wonderful set of contradictions, don’t you think?

I would like to offer as an example my oldest son, Galen.  When he was about three years old, he and I were watching Sesame Street together when he suddenly turned to me and said, “Real frogs can’t talk.”

We lived, at the time, in a rural area where encounters with wild life and livestock were common, and we ourselves had dogs and sheep.  Galen had no trouble at all separating fact from fiction, life from television.  I remember thinking at the time that he had an advantage over a lot of adults I could name.

On the other hand, Galen, like many three or four or five year olds, sometimes had problems with nightmares and worried about monsters in the closet or under his bed.  No amount of rational explanations about non-existent monsters was going to help.  So we made a game of it.  We concocted magic anti-monster juice (tap water), put it in a spray bottle and put an anti-monster spell on it.  When Galen complained of monsters which lay in wait in his closet, we would spray it with the anti-monster juice with drama and flourish, uttering the ancient incantation, “Out, out, damned Spot!”  Galen always slept better afterward.

Don’t get me wrong.  We never encouraged him to believe in magic or monsters or faeries or dragons or ghosts.  He has grown up to be a healthily skeptical young man who smirks at ghost stories.  Even so, he still enjoys a good story or sword and sorcery and talking frogs.  He’s far more active in the Society for Creative Anachronism than I am.

I am not a psychologist or neurologist, so I don’t know the words, but I believe that our consciousness is dominated by different parts of our brains in the light of rational day and the dark of mystical night.  And each state seems totally foreign to us when we are in the demesne of the other.  And though a child may give more voice to their inner fears, adults are not immune.  A good story teller is one who can transport the audience from one state to the other, sitting around the campfire, bidding the listener to abandon incredulity for just a moment in order to more fully appreciate the punch line. Strong relationships are built by sharing our irrational fears.

But come the dawn, it’s time again for the serious working and rational thinking.  Time to harvest, time to build, while we look forward to the next episode.

Review: The Colony

The Colony

Discovery Channel

“Reality TV”

From the network that gave us Mythbusters comes a show that seems to be a fusion of Junkyard Wars and Survivor. The show takes 10 people of varied backgrounds – a physician, a nurse, a handyman, a marine biologist, a couple of engineers – and sets them in a world where most humans have perished from a global virus.   Each episode has started with a head shot of Adam Montella, a “Homeland Security Advisor,”  telling us “We are on the edge of a global catastrophic disaster.”  The background shows a grim picture of Century City in ruins.

The “world” where these 10 survivors spend the next 10 weeks is located in an abandoned warehouse park on the edge of the Los Angeles River.  They are cut off from communication, electricity, and running water.  They must solve the problems of shelter, food and water and even the occasional “marauder” in the archetypal form of a motorcycle gang.

If you read the credits carefully, there is a disclaimer reading, “The participants in ‘The Colony’ experiment are presented with situations that were created by the producers.  They receive support from off-camera experts when their health and safety may be in danger. Viewers should not attempt to engage in the activities depicted in the experiment.”  So, they aren’t really cut off from the world.

I don’t believe this show was envisioned to be an actual show about people surviving.  You know they are going to survive for ten weeks, or they wouldn’t have a show.  There are experts on hand to advise and help the cast with their projects.  However, it does provide a vehicle for inspiring discussion about how people react in extreme conditions.

There are ethical questions to consider:  Is it really okay to steal food from somebody else, knowing that you may have condemned them to death by starvation, just so that you can have another day’s worth of food?  Would it have been better to invite the guys who owned the goats to join them in the Sanctuary?  (Not in the script, though.)  In order to survive for long, they are going to have to reinvent agriculture, a very labor-intensive activity without 21st Century technology to help.  They’re going to need every hand they can get come the harvest.

Questions of desperation: How hungry do you have to be to eat a carp caught in the Los Angeles River?

Questions of personality: Okay, the handyman is probably over-reacting in order to get more air time on the show.  Do you notice that the camera rarely focuses on the quieter, more rational types?  The handyman is an a-hole, but his skills are necessary for the survival of the group.  When does one side of this equation overrule the other?

The show offers a lot of instruction — I didn’t know about the wood gasifyer, but, day-um!  How kewl is that?  I suspect that the little two-stroke engine that they attached it to won’t last long on that fuel, but it’s still a good idea!

I don’t believe this show will offer a lot in the way of plot twists and surprises, but it’s still good fodder for discussion of human nature and survival.