January 14, 2018

Modern Artifacts: The Pencil

Filed under: Modern artifacts — acagle @ 11:00 am

I came across this photo essay about the last US-based pencil factory:

A pencil is a little wonder-wand: a stick of wood that traces the tiniest motions of your hand as it moves across a surface. I am using one now, making weird little loops and slashes to write these words. As a tool, it is admirably sensitive. The lines it makes can be fat or thin, screams or whispers, blocks of concrete or blades of grass, all depending on changes of pressure so subtle that we would hardly notice them in any other context. (The difference in force between a bold line and nothing at all would hardly tip a domino.) And while a pencil is sophisticated enough to track every gradation of the human hand, it is also simple enough for a toddler to use.

Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.

Desert Fox

I believe I may have written before on this topic in the context of this book by Henry Petroski:

Like most other human artifacts, the common pencil, made and sold today by the millions, has a long and complex history. Henry Petroski, who combines a talent for fine writing with a deep knowledge of engineering and technological history, examines the story of the pencil, considering it not only as a thing in itself, but also as an exemplar of all things that are designed and manufactured.

Petroski ranges widely in time, discussing the writing technologies of antiquity. But his story really begins in the early modern period, when, in 1565, a Swiss naturalist first described the properties of the mineral that became known as graphite. Petroski traces the evolution of the pencil through the Industrial Revolution, when machine manufacture replaced earlier handwork. Along the way, he looks at some of pencil making’s great innovators–including Henry David Thoreau, the famed writer, who worked in his father’s pencil factory, inventing techniques for grinding graphite and experimenting with blends of lead, clay, and other ingredients to yield pencils of varying hardness and darkness. Petroski closes with a look at how pencils are made today–a still-imperfect technology that may yet evolve with new advances in materials and design.

It’s such a ubiquitous object that very few ever take the time to think about. It used to be, anyway, top of the list for every new school year: Pencils and notebooks. Do kids even write anymore? Judging by the penmanship (or lack thereof) demonstrated by some middle-schoolers I interacted with recently, it sure doesn’t seem like it (except the girls; they generally wrote well). But it really goes to the heart of the cultural elaboration that writing is for our species. People used to scribble a lot on pretty much anything to hand, predominantly potsherds where such were available (and where there was a writing system) which was a cheap and easy form of communication, what RC Dunnell used to call “time transgressive” objects: they persist through time unlike the spoken word. It (writing) meant that you could translate your spoken/unspoken words to a time- (and space-) transgressive object and therefore communicate your words across space and through time, not just to one person but to many. The pencil, once the vast background infrastructure was developed to make them cheap and easy to produce and sell, delivered that to the masses.

Granted, I’m not a traditional pencil user. I much prefer pencil to pen for notes and just about anything else, but I rarely use traditional wood pencils. I’m a mechanical pencil guy and have been for most of my life. I like the sharp consistency of the “lead” in mechanicals, plus the fact that you never have to sharpen it and make a mess with the shavings.

Though admittedly getting up to sharpen ones pencil provided a handy excuse to get up and wander around, and perhaps check out some of the girls in the class. . . . . .

My personal all-time favorite mechanical pencil is the Pentel with the side-clicker because you don’t have to move your fingers around much to advance the “lead”. Plus it’s a bit fatter where you grip it. I also use a slightly softer “lead” for it; on the HB scale where “HB” is about equivalent to the standard #2, I get one softer, the B. I just like the smoothness and darker line it produces.

Desert Fox

One thing of specific archaeological note: I discovered that Rite In The Rain produces a field pencil. I tried it out and at first didn’t much care for it, mostly because it uses a 1..1 mm “lead” which I don’t really like, but I’ve gotten used to it. I remain wary of using an $11 pencil out in the field — because, you know, I’m always losing things — but so far it’s worked out well.

So sometime today, take a moment out to consider the humble pencil. Pick it up, write something with it and know that you are utilizing one of the true wonders of mankind.

December 30, 2017

Paper du jour

Filed under: Online publications — acagle @ 10:36 am

Okay, kiddos, here is a paper I’ve told you about before. I’m not sure if I have to, but This Paper Is Posted and Linked to Temporarily for Educational Purposes Only.

R.C. Dunnell 1983 Aspects of the Spatial Structure of the Mayo Site (15-JO-14) Johnson County, Kentucky.

(Sorry about the sideways nature of it, I’m going to futz with it and see if I can’t get a better PDF. Otherwise, print it out. [Update: You can rotate the view in Reader])

With that out of the way, I’m going to re-read it again and invite y’all to do the same. I daresay this is probably my favorite archaeological paper ever. Which is weird. I know.

It’s really not a Big Deal of a paper, but I think it’s a wonderful example of clear writing and what is possible with limited data.

Also it was a huge cautionary tale for me when I realized that all — really the vast majority — of stuff archaeologists collect will end up deteriorating to nothing within not too many years. It was an eye-opener.

It also more or less drove my dissertation research.

Enjoy. Will be back to blather about it some more after I’ve gone through it again.

November 20, 2017

A few items on the Solutrean Hypothesis

Filed under: Pre-Clovis — acagle @ 4:08 pm

A reader and I have been chatting about various stone tool doings and the Solutrean Hypothesis. I’ve never been a big fan of it myself and haven’t really kept up with the literature, but though I would provide a few recent papers on the subject.

Bradley and Stanford 2004: Argues for an ice-edge corridor, something like the ice-free corridor proposed for western N America. I actually hadn’t heard of this before (as I say, not something I really follow).

Westley and Dix 2008 provide a rebuttal for that.

The genetic evidence I’ve always thought was the weak spot, and still think that. Here’s a couple papers on that as well.

Raff and Bolnick 2015 and Raff and Bolnick 2014.

Putting these up for educational purposes, mind you. Will take them down in a couple of weeks.

September 21, 2017

Open access paper alert

Filed under: Online publications — acagle @ 6:55 pm

The Teotihuacan Anomaly: The Historical Trajectory of Urban Design in Ancient Central Mexico

Here’s the abstract:

The ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan had the most aberrant design of any city in ancient Mesoamerica. I examine similarities and differences between the design of Teotihuacan and other Mesoamerican cities. During the Preclassic period, a set of common Mesoamerican planning principles emerged. The designers of Teotihuacan rejected most of these principles in favor of a new and radical set of planning concepts. After the fall of Teotihuacan, subsequent urban planners ignored the Teotihuacan principles and returned to ancient Mesoamerican planning ideas. Elements of the Teotihuacan plan did not resurface until the Mexica of Tenochtitlan revived them for a specific goal. The historical sequence of central Mexican city layouts highlights the anomalous character of Teotihuacan’s principles of urban design within the canons of ancient Mesoamerican urbanism.

Looks interesting although I haven’t read it. Someone feel free to read and comment upon it.

September 19, 2017

Not a paper, but. . . . .

Filed under: Lithics — acagle @ 7:40 pm

So this. . . . .

is my life for the next couple of weeks. It’s a buttload of debitage.

Bet you didn’t know I was a lithic analyst, huh?

Well, neither did I.

However, since I was the most qualified among us — because, you know, I did a small debitage analysis project 25 years ago — I was tasked with it.

So far it’s going rather well. I did the tools already, which were mostly broken half-finished bifaces with a few utilized flakes thrown in (plus a couple of nice projectile points), but the main thing is the debitage since that makes up like 99% of the objects.

Did I mention it’s the major analysis for the project? Ya, no pressure.

Anyway, it is going rather well, although I’ve been really nervous. Because, you know, the last lithic analysis I did was a small debitage analysis project 25 years ago. But it’s a pretty simple analysis and the great thing is that it’s 99% a single raw material (chert) and it’s predominantly one thing: broken flakes from biface manufacture. Probably the best scenario to get back into it. Pretty much basic sorts of data: count them all up, and then take a sample and do metrics and record other traits (number of flake scars, platform shape, etc.) for each flake. I’m starting that stuff tomorrow. (Probably). I have to analyze about 1500 individual flakes. Can you say Tedious? I knew that you could.

September 14, 2017

Using old data I

Filed under: Cemeteries, Egypt — acagle @ 7:19 pm

I was going to post a link to one of my favorite papers, one by RC Dunnell called Aspects of the Spatial Structure of the Mayo Site (15-JO-14), Johnson County, Kentucky but I’ve not been able to track down a PDF copy (I was sure I had one somewhere). Not sure why I lit upon that topic but I’ve wanted to link to it for a while now. It’s a really neat study using previously collected artifacts and it really makes a lot out of a little. I’ll try to get to it sometime (I’m searching my various backup drives now).

It was actually sort of the inspiration for this paper that I did (submitted it to a journal, rejected, and now part of our monograph: Human Burials at Kom el-Hisn. What I tried to do in that is integrate some of our burials — which are few, because they were incidental to the other work — with those from work done back in the late 1940s and 1950s. Someone else (referenced therein) had already tried to go through their burial data but it was limited as well, due to poor record keeping and pretty much everything else from that earlier work.

Can’t say I came up with any earth-shattering insights. . . .it ended up being far more descriptive than analytic, unfortunately — but I managed to tease out a few relevant observations. I still think, for example, that a bunch of burials are later Old Kingdom rather than FIP or MK. (I notice that document doesn’t have any figures either).

Actually I have quite a few more papers that I might upload (or find links to).

September 12, 2017

Well, let’s start it off with. . . . . .something else.

Filed under: Modern artifacts — acagle @ 7:33 pm

Jerry Pournelle, the first author to write a novel on a computer, dies at 84

I link this not really because it has any particular archaeological significance, but he was part of a whole milieu back in the late 1980s and early 1990s that kind of set me on my path. Not archaeology — I was already on that — but rather to my entire side (some would say main) career path working with computers. ‘N junk.

Regulars may recall that I started undergraduate school as a computer science major, but ended up in archaeology because it interested me far more than programming ^$)#ing linked lists in ^$)#ing assembly language. Anyway, a few years into grad school my funding sucked, my faculty advisor was an alcoholic, and I needed to earn a living, so I ended up by chance with a Large City’s Department of Public Health analyzing data. First on an old IBM mainframe and then we moved to PCs running. . . . .OS/2. Having been a Vax guy, I adored OS/2 and thought Windows was nothing more than DOS in a clown suit. And thus I entered unto the Great OS Wars of the 1980s and 1990s.

Anyway, Pournelle: He used to have a column in the old Byte magazine (ha, look what’s in the top row there). He was an exceptional writer for a magazine like that, not some technical mumbo jumbo or rehashed advertising copy; his columns told a story. In a way, they were almost all the same: He’d describe how he changed something in his Windows network — say, adding a video card — and then the network wouldn’t work, and he’d spend the next week tracking down what was going on and calling tech support (they used to have such things back then), and flipping dip switches, and blah blah blah, until he finally got it going again.

Which is a big reason I thought Windows was nothing more than DOS in a clown suit.

He gave OS/2 a try and was actually fair in his “review”, unlike most other @sshats who would just say “It’s not like Windows so it sux” and leave it at that. He did spend some time getting it up and running but then he admitted it was quite stable and just chugged along.

And then he forgot about it and wrote more columns about Windows ^$)#ing up (Note: I’ve gotten a bit more of a potty mouth in the last few months; please bear with us — Mgmt).

I guess the point of all this is that the whole period back then got me on the whole mostly non-academic route I’ve continued on to the present. As y’all know, I’ve linked to a lot of stories on the academic meltdown (as I see it) over the last couple of decades; that stems from having spent a lot of time in the Real World while having a foot in academia as well. And Pournelle was a memorable part of that whole process of extracting myself from the world of pure academia.

I liked, but was not fascinated with, Lucifer’s Hammer (which kinda scared the dickens outta me), The Mote in God’s Eye (which had some neat, if really flawed, ideas about cultural evolution), and probably the most disturbing one, Inferno, which also kinda creeped me out. It’s basically a sci fi retelling of Dante’s Inferno but with modern sins and punishments. I finally got around to reading Dante’s version a while ago; tough reading but worth it. Definitely read that one if you pick any of them. Might be dated, but it’s still good I think.

So, RIP, dude. You done good.

September 7, 2017

Returning from the grave?

Filed under: Blogging update — acagle @ 7:36 pm

The Return

Hey everyone. Long time no post. As I indicated earlier, I’ve been posting stuff at Facebook because it’s easier to post there, no blah blahing HTML and such.

Was wondering what you guys thought I should do with this place. I’ve been thinking perhaps of using this more as a repository for more scholarly things. Mostly linking to (free) academic papers and such, and perhaps using this as well for laying out some of my CRM experiences and opinions.

I feel bad just leaving this site go the way of the dodo, mainly because it’s been around a while.

March 23, 2017


Filed under: Humor — acagle @ 6:54 pm

Archaeologists Uncover Last Human To Die Happy

March 16, 2017

So I got Hulu

Filed under: Pop culture — acagle @ 7:02 pm

And I’ve been watching some of the old shows they have on. For example. . . .Space: 1999!

I like (read: how goofy is that?!) how Martin Landau turns one way and then Barbara Bain turns the other way.

Here’s the premise for the noobs:

The premise of Space: 1999 centres on the plight of the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, a scientific research centre on the Moon. Humanity had been storing its nuclear waste in vast disposal sites on the far side of the Moon, but when an unknown form of electromagnetic radiation is detected, the accumulated waste reaches critical mass and causes a massive thermonuclear explosion on September 13, 1999. The force of the blast propels the Moon like an enormous booster rocket, hurling it out of Earth orbit and into deep space at colossal speed, thus stranding the 311 personnel stationed on Alpha.[2] The runaway Moon, in effect, becomes the “spacecraft” on which the protagonists travel, searching for a new home.

Anyway, at the time I thought it was kind of pathetic how we went from studly Captain Kirk to weenie John Koenig wearing pajamas. But I still think I watched every episode; strangely, I haven’t really remembered ever seeing any of these before, it’s like watching a new/old series. It’s definitely cheesy. I think I built a plastic model of one of the Eagles when I was a kid. I thought they were functionally cool.

It’s obvious now that the writers knew next to nothing about actual space. For one thing, even though they’re far, far away from the Sun the whole area around the moonbase is always brightly lit. Plus there’s sound in airless space. They don’t seem to understand distance in space either, or speed for that matter. They’re supposedly blasted away from the earth, but almost immediately end up in different solar systems. By the 8th episode they’re actually between galaxies! Yet, when they are approaching various plants and such they have at least a couple of days where they can shuttle back and forth.

It’s kind of fun experiencing the mid-1970s vibe though. Especially after having watched a bunch of the old Star Trek episodes recently.

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