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.


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.

The 31st Annual Great Dickens Christmas Faire

Last weekend, Beth and I decided to continue our annual visit to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Victorian Holiday Party.  I wrote about this last year, too, and won’t spend a lot of time on it here, only to mention that we had a great time in spite of the gate cost.

What amazes me every year is that in an era of mass commercial production of goods, there exists an entire subculture economy of people who still hand-craft their products.  We had a pleasant conversation with a couple who make clothes and sell them not only at the Dickens Fair but all of the Renaissance Faires and SCA events, too.   You can visit their website at

The cost of these goods is considerably more than what you’ll find at retailers like Target and Wal-Mart.  Quality hand-crafted goods will always be more expensive.  But if you’re the kind of person who would rather buy the cheap plastic crap at those stores, then the Dickens Fair/Renaissance Faire/SCA really isn’t for you anyway.

We spent most of our time taking in the stage shows and other presentations, which were free if you don’t count the gate cost.  We splurged and bought some roasted chestnuts and fudge, but for the most part the food was way over priced, and the argument could not be made that it was hand-crafted.

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.

SCA Archery and the Labors of Hercules

On August 8th, 2009, the Shire of Cloondara, which is the SCA equivalent of San Francisco, California, hosted its annual Debardchery contest, a combination of archery and bardic contests.  As Archery Mistress, I ran the archery part.  It takes pretty much all year to plan and pull this off.

The Hydra from the Labors of Hercules as a homemade 3D target.

The Hydra from the Labors of Hercules as a homemade 3D target.

The theme of the even was the 12 Labors of Hercules, and we made our own targets.  Here you can see the Hydra.  The rest of the targets were painted on cardboard.  We used the Stymphalian birds as speed targets – The archer could shoot as many arrows as possible in thirty seconds.  There were six small targets, about six inches across, places between 5 and 10 meters distant.  The archer had to shoot each target once before shooting any target twice.

Debardchery 2009 Stymphalian Birds target

Debardchery 2009 Stymphalian Birds target

SCA Archery is restricted to traditional archery gear and wooden arrows, however the construction of the equipment is often modern.  After all, it is called “creative anachronism.”  This is due to the fact that “period” archery gear is near impossible to find on the commercial market, and most amateur archers are not comfortable building their own bows.  We’re comfortable making our own period garb, but functional weaponry, not so much.  There is, however, a “period archery” division in inter-kingdom competition. But if we insisted on strictly medieval construction for bows and arrows, we wouldn’t have many archers.  However, if you want to talk about homemade bows, I can publish some posts on that.

We're comfortable making our own period garb.  Functional weaponry, not so much.

We're comfortable making our own period garb. Functional weaponry, not so much.

Medieval women shooting modern bow

We had a record turn out this year.  Thirty-three medieval archers ranging in skill level from “I’ve never held a bow before in my life!” to “Yeah, I practice every day for an hour before work.”  We separated archers as best we could into five separate skill levels.

The distances to the targets ranged from 5 meters to 45 meters.  However, one 12-year old intrepid longbowmen was allowed to shoot from 30 meters max, as his bow was not able to cast 45 meters.

My schedule for the weekend was a simple one: Saturday – Debardchery.  Sunday – the Cupid’s Gate tourney, which is a “mundane” or real world competition.  So of course, I woke up Saturday morning with a fever and a hoarse voice.  One of the Shire heralds was kind enough to be my voice for the day.  However, she couldn’t compete for me in the Cupid’s Gate, so I regretfully did not participate.

Anno Societatis D (Year of the Society 500)

We attended the Dickens’ Faire yesterday and had a great time!  They took a large warehouse and decorated the inside to resemble Christmas time Victorian era London, and a large number of actors and reenactors played characters out of the numerous works of Charles Dickens, and other 19th Century English authors.  For instance, we also met Mr. Phileas Fogg.  

To answer your first question, yes — there was no sign of tuberculosis or air pollution, and there was only oratorical mention of 16 hour work days for the working class.  This was a “feel good” experience, ‘k?

We were given the opportunity to purchase period wares at incredibly inflated prices, but mostly we walked from venue to venue to see the free shows.  (Free if you don’t count the tip jar.)  We especially enjoyed the dancing.

We don’t own any period garb from the 1850’s, and we felt that we missed out on quite a bit because of this.  There was a huge percentage of non-theatricals who were dressed in appropriate garb.  It was a clear instance of participatory theatre.

I have often wondered how historical recreationists of the future, say the year 2500 of the Current Era, will portray our own society.  How will they dress?  How will they act?  What events will they celebrate?  How will they talk?

I suspect that they will use 20th Century literature as a source.  This is, after all, what recreationists do today.  Perhaps they’ll use Jack Kerouac, John SteinbeckErnest Hemingway, perhaps even Mickey Spillane.  And, just as recreationists do today, there will be a mixture of eras and characters who would normally never meet.  For instance, I foresee Beatniks hanging out with flappers, rock stars, migrant farmers, old sailors, hippies, gumshoes and astronauts.  Also, there’s no reason to expect them to restrict themselves to American literature, but I’m not familiar enough with the literature of other cultures to list them.

I anticipate that there will be endless discussions of the meaning of the words “Dude,” “cool” and “like”.  There will be vendors who specialize in creating period garb using denim, zippers and Velcro.  Those who are interested in the martial aspects of our culture will spend a lot of research trying to make M-16’s, Uzi’s and AK-47’s safe for reinactment battles.  I suspect that they won’t reinact My Lai for the same reason we don’t reinact tuberculosis, but maybe they will be a more honest reinactors, so who knows.

What is it about our current society that you think will fascinate the world of 2500 c.e.?  The advent of nuclear power/weapons? The birth of the Space Age?  The rise and fall of Communism?  American Imperialism?  The Century of the Automobile?  Aviation? The wars for oil?  

I would love to hear your thoughts.

The Difference Between the SCA and the Renaissance Faire

My WMA instructors are a husband and wife team, Paul and Melissa, who own and operate Fearless Fitness. I arrive after work, and Melissa (or a member of her team) makes me sweat profusely for an hour.  We jump, run, do a multitude of ab, arm and leg strengthening exercises, and we learn to kick and punch.  After Melissa has worn me to an absolute frazzle, I pick up a wooden sword called a waster (longswords on Mondays, sideswords on Thursdays) and Paul tries his best to teach me the how to not kill myself with the steel kind.  He also throws in a couple of lessons in Italian and German languages, so with any luck I won’t sound like a complete idiot when I talk about swords in the world of sword enthusiasts.

Then I go home and take more ibuprofin.

Paul and Melissa are also the honored leaders of the Guild of St. Dismas, which is active in the local Renaissance Faire circuit. Several members of the guild are also my fellow students at Fearless.  Along with the various theatrical demonstrations normally associated with a Ren Faire guild, they also own and operate a trebouchet, largely for the purpose of disposing of surplus pumpkins after Halloween.

I have seen a couple of small scale trebouchets in action during SCA wars, but they only launch soft, safe projectiles short distances. (They are, after all, being launched towards human targets.)  Watching a larger scale trebouchet launch pumpkins to their doom tickled our fancy. Paul and Melissa invited us join them, so we loaded up with our SCA gear and drove to Fresno, California, where the St. Dismas trebouchet lives, to watch it in action.

While we have been to many Ren Faires in the past, we have never seen the “behind-the-scenes” workings before, and this experience really drove home some of the differences between the cultures of the SCA and Ren Faire.

The differences come down to this: The SCA attempts to create an internally consistent medieval universe for its own benefit.  The actors are also the audience.  The Ren Faire is theatre, put on primarily for the public, which pays an often usurious entry fee to see it, who then pay inflated prices for the crafts.

In the SCA, participants change from “mundane” clothing into SCA garb as soon as they arrive at an event, often Friday afternoon, and don’t change back into mundanes until they leave Sunday night.  Therefore, we were taken by complete surprise when the members of St. Dismas changed back into denizens of the 21st Century mere minutes after the Faire closed to the public.  It was like somebody had flipped a switch.  Quote one of the members, “Hey! After hours is after hours!”

This is not to say that one is better than the other, and certainly there’s a lot of overlap of participants between the two kinds of events.  Optimally, one should enjoy each kind of event for its own sake, and we had a great time. Though not so much for the event, but for the people.