Archive for June, 2006

Google Answers is “Weekly Web Wonder”

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

James Derk, of the Scripps Howard News Service, has made Google Answers his “Weekly Web Wonder” for his 27 June 2006 column. He writes:

WEEKLY WEB WONDER: Let’s try Google answers this time. Hit it at for your questions and answers.

James seems to realise that a free answers service would be unable to generate the same kind of content as a paid service:

I always thought Google’s implementation of it was a little snarky because it made people actually pony up and pay for an answer.

Turns out that’s probably not such a bad idea…

At least Google, by making people pay a buck or two, is keeping out the bottom-feeders. It’s either that or hire a 100,000 more editors for the abuse department.

(via Cynthia)

A Bit of Color

Sunday, June 25th, 2006

Once in a while a story about history may bring up a side issue.

One of those issues for me, though probably of little import to others, is the popular misconception that the Classical World was a world of gleaming white marble temples, palaces, and shining white cities.

Most every reconstruction of Roman and Greek architecture found online shows either the “white marble” model, with perhaps ‘just a touch’ of color or ignores color completely. Most offline resources do also. The fact that the classical world was colorful to the extreme, seems to be one of those dirty little secrets horded by the few out of fear of destroying this great public misconception. Archaeologists and historians both know that the Hellenistic World was colorful and painted to the hilt, yet little of this information makes its way to the public. One of the reasons has to do with the seeming public refusal to accept Greece and Rome as being garish. ( so were Egypt and Mesopotamia ) The “pure white marble” temple concept is so deeply ingrained, that when we do hear about it, we soon tend to forget it.

Much of our Western architectural heritage is based on the concept of “white stone” buildings in the classical world. Washington D.C. is a living monument to the 18th and 19th century vision of classical architecture, as is the Tomb of Victor Emmanuel in Rome. And they are beautiful in their own way. But, the Greeks and Romans would have considered them incomplete. A building without its color was not yet finished.

Now then, picture the gleaming facade of the United States Supreme Court Building in all its white marble glory, just as the majority of us picture the temples of ancient Rome.

supremecourt.jpg image courtesy

Next, picture it with purple columns and perhaps the body of the building painted purple as well, capitals and other architectural elements highlighted with gold , red, blue, green and polished bronze, or with natural color, if the element is a statue.

Now, you have something visually close to a Temple of Jupiter as it might be in a provincial capital somewhere. The temple in Rome would be even more splendid.

Corinthian capitals on the columns may have had a special treatment of their own. This description of a Corinthian capital comes from, “In the Cause of Architecture.”

“The Corinthian cap in our illustration was exhumed at Olympia in comparatively good preservation. It is difficult to find data upon this subject, and this example is of particular interest, inasmuch as it demonstrates the application of the decorative principles of color alternation, and color separation. The foliated husk of the angle volutes and the lower tier of leaves are painted blue; the centre tier is painted yellow, the yellow is also carried into the centre of the rosette, and on the stems of the lower leaf tier, realizing, as nearly as the motif permits, the appearance of alternating color. Unity in color effect is achieved by the method of separating bright colors with a fillet of another color, red serving this purpose in its outlining of the detail. This well-balanced distribution of red contributes much to the stabilizing of effect.”

Can you imagine the the U.S. Capitol Building all decked out in the national colors of red, white and blue, with a little gold trim thrown in for good measure? – – – It is difficult, isn’t it?

But that is the way Greeks and Romans would have done it. Until the Capitol Building displayed all its appropriate colors, it was not finished.
Above images found at this website where there is also much more about ancient architectural color

It is claimed Augustus said, “I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.” Now, he may have not meant that phrase literally, according to some sources. But if he had, few would have noticed the difference. Both marble and brick would have been plastered over and painted. The finished result looking much the same.

What that phrase may also mean is that Augustus reigned over a peaceful age in Roman history, the heart of the time known as the Pax Romana. Before Augustus, Rome was republic of brick, disparate and fragmented. After Augustus, Rome was an empire, solid like marble.

But I digress. I do that so easily.

I’m old and allowed to.

The concept of a “white marble” Greco-Roman civilization and the architectural purity it stands for, is now so deeply imbedded in our collective mind, a sudden realization that the cultural “mother” cities of Athens and Rome were extremely garish, and even repulsive, by the standards of the modern “Classic” code we have, based on our original misunderstanding of it. (scratching head here)

The temples and public buildings of the time exploded with color. The finest of white marbles were whitewashed over and painted. Marble was used because of its strength and durability rather than for its beauty. (though that did change somewhat later in Roman history when ‘colored’ marbles began to replace painted surfaces. ( more on that later )
Color overwhelmed everything. Classic, and increasingly “corinthian order” public buildings glowed in lime green, red, blue, purple, and once in a while a fairly neutral “sandy” color for large, flat surface, architectural elements.

The beautiful, green patina, bronze, equesterian statue of an emperor we see today, didn’t exist then. The bronze was not allowed to show. The entire statue would have been painted to look as natural as possible. Horse too.

Even the triumphal arches which today stand in white splendor were once quite different. The Arch of Constantine, which is the largest in Rome – “… that the arch was completed with precious pictorial and metal decorations. The dominating colours were gold and purple, the colours of the Empire.” – Quote From

The numerous portrait busts of Roman men and women we find jammed into our museum displays, all glittering so pure and white under the specially designed lighting, probably at one time looked more like this, with full color overall.
bust.jpg Please note that this is a ‘composite’ statue ( more later ) where polished stone of various types replaces paint as the color medium. Only the hair and face would have required painting. – – – image courtesy

In fact, finding a Roman sculpture surviving with any paint on it at all, is such a rare thing it makes the news. – From Discovery Channel

The only two artistic architectural developments of any significance made by the Romans were the Tuscan and Composite orders; the first being a shortened, simplified variant on the Doric order and the Composite being a tall order with the floral decoration of the Corinthian and the scrolls of the Ionic combined.

However, innovation did start as early as the first century BCE, with the invention of concrete, a stronger and readily available substitute for stone.

Tile-covered concrete quickly supplanted marble as the primary building material and more daring buildings soon followed, with great pillars supporting broad arches and domes rather than dense lines of columns and flat architraves. The freedom of concrete also inspired the colonnade screen, a row of purely decorative columns in front of a load-bearing wall. These decorative columns were usually painted a contrasting color to the wall behind. Later in Roman history, contrasting colors of marbles were used.

The tiles covering the concrete were themselves often large slabs of marble, plastered over and painted. In fact, the banks of the Tiber River, within the confines of Rome, were entirely paved with slabs of marble, and concrete being used to eliminate the dips and bumps for a smooth paved surface.

In smaller-scale architecture, concrete’s strength freed the floor plan from rectangular cells to a more free-flowing environment. On return from campaigns in Greece, the general Sulla brought back what is probably the most well-known decorative element of the early imperial period: the mosaic, a decoration of colorful chips of stone inset into cement. Now even Roman floors took on color of their own.

One of my favorite stories about the great “need to paint” attitudes of the Classical World comes from Greece. It seems an architect actually wanted white marble to show in a shrine. So, the building was constructed of white marble, plastered over, painted white, and with small brushes the lines and markings of fine white marble were painted on the new surface. Actually imitation “painted” marble finishes were not unknown.

Now back to that change from painting to colored marbles that took place later in Roman history. Just as color has always had symbolism, stone, especially colored stone, developed its own symbolism as the Empire grew, and both sets of symbols meshed.

As Rome’s conquests of the Mediterranean basin continued, it gained access to more colored stones such as yellow marble from Tunisia, purple marble from Turkey, along with red, green, and black marbles from Greece. Egypt was the richest source of color. It provided red, gray, and black granite, basalts and sedimentary stones, even black volcanic glass (obsidian). Sardonyx was imported from as far away as India.

Color in stone served a variety of purposes just as it did in painting. Exotic color stones were suitable for sculpture or buildings representing non-Roman subjects like barbarians, Africans, Germans, etc.

Materials could be combined to create composite statuary. ( see image above )

And perhaps most of all, the use of colored stone was a political reminder of the areas under Roman subjugation. It was this last usage which facilitated the rapid changeover from paint to colored stone in buildings representing the state shortly after the end of the Republic. The color didn’t change, only the material used to display it. This use of color was no longer merely decorative, it now signified the Power and Authority of the Roman State. ( the anthropology of ‘signified’ and ‘signifier’ is a subject all its own )

As Rome moved away from painting to allowing more ‘naked stone’ to show, it never did give up the color. If the new piece of stone couldn’t give the color depth needed or wanted, they still painted.

From Hollywood movie sets to public architecture, I’m sure the “white marble” concept of the Classical World is here to stay. That does not make it right, but like many other things in popular culture, though it is wrong, it won’t go away.

Till later


55 ways to have fun with Google

Saturday, June 24th, 2006

Philipp Lenssen has written a fun little book about fun things to do with Google.


The 55 chapters searching games, graphical games, Google history, Google trivia, Google gadgets, Googledromes and more.

The second-best thing about this book is that Philipp has released it under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license, which means that you are allowed – encouraged even – to copy, read, share, remix, convert, quote, browse, and print the PDF to your liking. (Philipp asks that if you do create conversions, e.g. an HTML version, please send him the URL.)

You can download the PDF for free, or buy the paper book. The paper version is certainly easier to read on the train, but somehow I think this book is best read on-screen from the PDF, with a Google window open to the side of it so that you can try everything out as you read about it.

I've saved the best thing until last. Look what I found tucked away on page 154:


A little Oklahoma humor

Friday, June 23rd, 2006

(via Jean)

A candidate for the US Senate was campaigning in Oklahoma, and he visited Cherokee Nation headquarters to make a speech. “When I am elected,” he said, “I'll have a brand new university built here, just for the Native people.”

The members of the audience waved their arms in the air and exclaimed “Ungya! Ungya!”

“When I am elected, I'll have a new, state-of-the-art hospital built here,” the candidate continued. The audience again responded with cries of “Ungya! Ungya!”

The candidate was impressed with the crowd's lively reaction, and he declaimed, “When I am elected, the Bureau of Indian Affairs will be totally overhauled.” Once again, the audience responded with “Ungya!”

After the speech, the leaders of the tribe took the beaming politician on a tour of the area, starting with a horse ranch. As they neared the stables, the Chief whispered to the candidate, “Watch your feet. Don't step in the ungya.”

Searching for free content with Google

Thursday, June 22nd, 2006

If you’re looking for free clip-art, free stock photos, free music, free articles, you can make use of Google’s “Usage Rights” search.

This little-known search feature is found on Google’s Advanced Search page, and lets you specify what kind of content you wish to find, according to whether it’s free to use or share, whether its free to modify, and whether it’s free even for commercial use.


As Google’s Usage Rights help page explains, Google is selecting the results based on links back from the content website to the free-licensing site Creative Commons. This alone doesn’t guarantee that every search result returned will be free to use. You will still need to double-check the item you wish to use, but those search results will be the best place to start looking.

Too much information!

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

There are some things that it’s best not to know about. Konrad Adenauer, echoing Bismarck, once said that “People sleep easier when they do not know what goes into making politics and sausages”.

If you don’t already know what natural sausage casings are made from, you’d be well advised not to click the link.

But people are curious, and there are plenty of Google Answers questions that you might not want to read prior to eating.

Or drinking. Do you want to know how to render human or animal urine safe to drink? I don’t, but redhoss-ga was happy to take on bethc50-ga’s $35 question.

You would think that “Most unaccountably popular pop song” would be a safe question to read, and indeed it is until you get to the part where knowledge_seeker-ga advises that:

“It’s a Small World” is the universal antidote song — guaranteed to remove any other song from your brain. However, it should be used with caution as there is no known method for removing it.

When richard-ga was helping to identify carpet worms for beeb-ga, he couldn’t resist telling his own worm story, but at least he prefixed it with the words “Squeamish people may wish to stop reading at this point”.

Alvarez469-ga wanted to know “the worst and strongest foul odor available for purchase on line” and omniscientbeing-ga was able to tell him what it is and where to buy some.

Tutuzdad-ga has no qualms about answering these kinds of questions. He was able to go into specific detail about why you wouldn’t want to boil eggs together with your vegetables, and he also offered help for the poop-eating dog (would you believe that adding spinach to the dog’s diet might make it too disgusting even for the dog to eat?).

The question “How much pus can milk have in it and still be sold legally” was asked and answered twice – in 2002 and 2005. You probably don’t want to know the answer.

If you got this far through this blog post, you must have a pretty strong stomach. In that case, you won’t mind knowing that those little mini droplets that you sometimes feel near trees on a sunny evening are actually insect excretia. I could even handle answering that one.

Meet SEC’s EDGAR in all his full-text glory

Monday, June 19th, 2006

In the course of researching this question at Google Answers, I visted the site of the US Securities and Exchange Commission to make use of their EDGAR database, and what should I find, but this:

Search the EDGAR Database

Full Text Search (Beta Version) Search the full text of filings from the last two years.

This is big news!

EDGAR is the SEC’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system, and is one of the larger text-storage databases maintained by the US government. It has long been a gold mine of information on public companies in the US, but a very frustrating gold mine…a deep and valuable resource, on the one hand, but on the other, the lack of full-text searching made it hard to find that needle in the haystack.

SEC’s beta text search, which they slipped in quietly, is a major breakthrough in EDGAR access, and provides a feature which, until now, was only available in expensive private services.

It’s not as sophisticated as a Google search would be, but still, it’s a full light year ahead of where they were last month.

If you do any sort of company research, take note of this splendid new tool.

pafalafaga David Sarokin

Greece – The Arrival

Monday, June 19th, 2006

What a stink?

I always thought that a ‘low Nile’ or the Port of Alexandria could get quite ripe. But Piraeus, the Port of Athens, has outdone them all. What a stench? I think every sewer and chamber pot in Greece has been emptied here.

And to top it all off, are these enormous clouds of incense trying to cover it all up. Simply makes a more disgusting mix to contend with.

Why is there all this activity at what is normally a dead port city? And why wasn’t I told about it before I left Alexandria?

Today, the Emperor Nero arrives to participate in the Olympic Games. And even though the Greeks have rules against non-Greek participation, that will make little difference to our Emperor.

My timing in life is still as interesting as ever. I calmly leave Alexandria only to arrive in the nearly abandoned Port of Piraeus, with luggage, servants, wine shipment in tow, while being chased by the entire Eastern Roman War Fleet fifteen minutes from my backside and closing fast.

Because of the Emperor’s presence with the fleet, all non-fleet vessels in proximity are considered possible dangers. The Romans have a knack for acting first and asking questions later.

Since I sailed straight for a recognized harbor instead of trying to outrun them and hide, I doubt if they will bother me now when they do arrive and I’m already tied up. Maybe ask a few questions?

However, I don’t think I will bother unloading today. Whether being chased by Roman warships or not, putting thirty barrels of high quality Egyptian wine in plain sight, on the dock, in front of fifteen-hundred thirsty, Roman soldiers would be pushing my luck a bit, even with Isis watching over me. – – – And the ladies in my party also appreciate not being put in plain sight, on the docks, too.

Not that they will stay out of sight, they just don’t want to be “on the docks.” I’m sure they will make themselves plenty visible, as long as several feet of water and a removed gangplank lie between them and their quary. And, of course, my daughter will be leading the parade.

That cheap incense is getting disgusting. And it is cheap too. Smells more like burning varnish than perfume. The Emperor is not going to like that, in as much as he is used to having saffron spread on his palace floors to perfume the air and flower petals mingled with perfumes being dropped from secret compartments in his ceilings, greeting him with cheap incense will not make a good impression whatever. They have also tried to make the quay look somewhat attractive with a few garishly painted statues and free standing columns, but nobody can miss the desolation here. Piraeus used to be the main port of Athens, and one of the busiest in the world, until its destruction at the hands of the Roman Sylla more than a hundred forty years ago.

Today, other than a ship or two and a very small fishing fleet, Piraeus is now mostly a garbage dump for Athens, one of the main reasons for the stench.

Why the Emperor chooses to land here is beyond me.

I think I will go ashore while the others wait.

… … …

… … …

Now that was an interesting excursion. When the Emperor landed, he passed less than ten feet from me. He was fair-haired, with weak, watery, blue eyes, a fat neck and chins, pot belly, and he was covered with spots. His smell was terrible even at that distance. He wore a short tunic, a dressing gown without a belt, a scarf around his neck, and no shoes.

It is said he goes around in that garb, in public, in Rome. Well, so much for that. But being on those ships for a few days, in all this heat, and without the ability to bathe has left our esteemed emperor perfectly ripe enough to pick. And splashing all that perfume over himself to hide it – -maybe I understand both the cheap incense and the location for the landing a little better now.

Just last year there was a serious plot against him. It was called the “Pisonian Conspiracy” and it was led by Gaius Calpurnius Piso. When it was uncovered, nineteen executions and suicides followed along with thirteen banishments. Piso and Seneca were among those who died.

There was never anything close to a trial. Anybody Nero suspected or disliked or who merely aroused the jealousy of his advisers, was sent a note ordering them to commit suicide.

So, he left Rome in charge of the freedman Helius and came to Greece to display his artistic abilities in the theaters and compete in the Olympic Games. Who will dare beat him in those races? Or not applaud his performances?

Our agent has finally arrived and informed us that he has obtained a large traditional Greek style country house for our use. I am anxious to compare it with our spacious Egyptian villas.

He said it is on a hill and commands a wonderful view of Athens along with its Acropolis. I hope I can stand looking at that bright red temple all the time. I knew that the Parthenon was built of white marble so was surprised when I first saw it from a distance as we sailed in. It is painted bright red, with blue, white, and gold trim, while its sculptures are painted to look as natural and lifelike as possible. It seems as though the Greeks hate naked stone. Everything sports a coat of paint. In that, they are exactly like us Egyptians.

Though we Egyptians have a much more sophisticated sense of what goes best with what.

In Rome, the Temple of Jupiter was once painted purple, the marble Temple of Castor and Pollux glimmers with red columns, capitals in blue, and a yellow tile roof, while another temple, just outside the walls on the Appian way, has purple columns, red capitals, and the body of the building is lime green. This last colorful gem is in a style just getting to be popular in that city, called Corinthian. It originated here in Greece, along with Doric and Ionic styles, which have already been used extensively.

They say the color of Rome will knock your socks off. Not a piece of bare white marble to be seen anywhere.

After all, they are very close to being barbarians, which could explain their bad taste. Hellenistic culture may now dominate the world, but it is still only an upstart in the ol’ civilization game.

Well, tomorrow we will begin moving the wine and household goods and in a couple of days another ship will arrive with more wine and the rest of the staff.

What a first day in my new home country.

Now it is a lovely gentle Greek evening in the harbor of Athens. The sky above is deep blue and the stars glitter. A soft breeze gently whispers by and – – “by Osiris’ missing member, what is that stench?” – -The air stinks. The water stinks. The soldiers stink. The incense stinks, and the Emperor smells like a piece of rotten fruit.

So, take a deep breath.

The ancient and noble Trading House of Digshotep, after more than a thousand years, has arrived in Greece.

And here we will prosper.

Or my name isn’t Phillip Digsopter.

Till next time


The Sohi – just who are they then?

Thursday, June 15th, 2006

We have now reached the end of this series about daily life in the stone age. But how do I know so much about the Sohi people?

I was there.

I've watched the women harvest the sago starch, and I have eaten it. I've paddled across the lake in a hollowed-out log, and seen the rows of ancestral bones on ledges above the lake. I've sat round a fire inside a hut telling stories with the men, hearing about their lives and the lives of their ancestors and their legend of how the lake was formed. And I've negotiated the mountain ridges to cross to the villages in adjoining valleys, and I've seen the scars on the men where the spear went in and the scars where the spear came out.

The real name of these people is not the Sohi. I coined that name because, in order to provide a full picture of daily stone age life, I've had to combine what I know about several different tribes. But they are all genuine stone-age tribes, all from Papua New Guinea, and mostly from the Southern Highlands region (hence, Sohi) where the Foi people live on the shores of Lake Kutubu.

These stone-age tribes were amongst the last to discover westerners. There are still some of them alive today who remember the first contact their societies had with early explorers and prospectors. Although western life is rapidly penetrating and reshaping their societies, even today there are women harvesting sago with stone tools, and men hunting with bow-and-arrow. Even today, canoes made from hollowed-out trees are plying the lake, although they may now sometimes have an outboard motor clamped onto the back.

I visited the Papua New Guinea highlands twice in the 1980s, and trekked into the most remote parts that I could reach. The original purpose of my trek was for a wilderness adventure, but it turned into a cultural adventure instead.

Although by then these people had seen some government officials and plenty of missionaries, many of them had not encountered recreational travellers. One day as I walked along a remote path, burdened down by a heavy backpack, I passed the sago-harvesters that I mentioned in the first article. When I saw that they were using a stone tied to a stick with twine, my mind was blown as it dawned on me that I was witnessing the last remnants of the stone age.

Much of the content of these posts, therefore, is from my own recollection. But some of it is not, because the practises had already died out before my visits.

Organised raids on other villages were no longer occurring – the missionaries had seen to that. I know about them from a remarkable book, an autobiography of a tribal chief who witnessed the arrival of “white man” and tells about life before and after their arrival. It is fifteen years since I read this book, so my memory might be a bit vague on some of the points, but I think I have the gist correct.

The book is Ongka: A Self-Account by a New Guinea Big-Man, narrated by Ongka himself and translated by anthropologist Andrew Strathern. It's easily readable by lay people such as myself, and it's one of the most fascinating books I've read.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this series as much as I enjoyed writing it. It brought back many fantastic memories for me. And thanks to Digs for his Daily Life In Ancient Egypt series, which inspired me to write these posts.

A pastebin for sharing text

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

Have you ever needed to post a large text file for discussion, but been stymied by line-wrapping gremlins? Did you want the file line-numbered so that you could discuss specific parts of it? Did you want to post a file for someone to see but have it automatically removed after a month (or after a day)?

What you need is a pastebin. You can host one on your own website, but why bother when there are a number of free online pastebins, for example

Just visit the site and copy some text into the text box. Optionally add your name and choose how long you would like your post to be retained. Click “Send”, and you will be given a short URL at which you and others can access your content.

To show how it works, I posted the complete lyrics of God Save the Queen which you can now see at complete with the politically-incorrect line highlighted. To achieve the highlight I just prefixed that line with a marker of @@ which causes pastebin to use a yellow background for that line.


When you view a pastebin page you can download the file, or make some changes and post a revised version. You can even click “diff” to highlight the differences between one revision and another.

If you are pasting computer programs, you can ask pastebin to apply syntax-highlighting in any of dozens of programming languages.

You can’t post binary files – but for collaborating with text files it’s great!