Archive for June, 2006

Daily Stone Age Life – miscellany

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

Now and then the Sohi people will hold a celebration. Everyone will decorate their bodies with the brightest colours that they can muster, using body paints made from earth pigments. Flowers are added, and plumage from brightly-coloured birds completes the decoration – the more the better.

Three days of merriment will follow, to celebrate a marriage or a successful harvest or perhaps just the passing of the seasons.

It’s a different story when someone dies. If it is an adult, there will be sadness all round, but only a widow will go into mourning. She will coat her body with blue-grey clay for many months, and when she removes the clay she is ready to once again be courted. If it is a child who has died, all the mothers will mourn together for a week, singing a haunting, wailing, mournful song for many hours each day.

Most of the rest of the time, the village is a happy place. The children play games with sticks and stones: throwing the stones, piling them up, pushing them around a path with sticks, jumping over them, and so on. The boys will mess about with small bows and arrows, and will chase animals. They may even occasionally catch a small bird or a lizard. The girls will make little bags by knotting scraps of bark twine, offcasts from the twine with which the women have made their shoulder-slung bags. The children also play in the stream near the village, or by the fire.

The stream flows into a larger river, which (due to the heavy rainfall) can quickly swell to a ten-metre-wide swirling torrent. Above this river the Sohi have built a bridge.

The basic design is that of a suspension bridge. The trunks of two trees form a tower at each end, from which plaited lianas (tough but flexible vines) form the catenary. A lattice of bamboo forms the walkway, with gaps filled in by woven lianas.

The bridge is strong and robust, but the materials from which it is made have a limited life and it will need to be repaired frequently, and the bridge re-built every fourteen years or so.

Beyond the bridge is the forest – the jungle – and the Sohi do not like to stay there after dark. Particularly, they will not sleep overnight on the path, for fear of falling trees. After dark is the time for the women to be in the family house, and for the men to be in the longhouse, telling stories around the fire, and being ready just in case tonight is the night chosen by those from a nearby valley to attack.


That’s the end of this group of articles about what it’s like to live in the stone age. In the next post, I will tell who the Sohi people are, and where this information comes from.

diet Coke and Mentos

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

Sometimes I wonder how people make discoveries. Sure you will have the famous “discovery by accident” quite often, but this one is really strange.

What happens when you mix Diet Coke and Mentos?

Well, it seems thereĀ“s a rather fast reaction that will make the Coke leave the bottle. Sounds boring? Check out the Diet Coke and Mentos page to see the possible results!


Search the Enron emails

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

When the US Department of Justice referred to a “criminal conspiracy to commit one of the largest corporate frauds in American history”, it was referring to the Enron scandal.

Now, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has released a database of hundreds of thousands of Enron emails to the public. The folks who produce the InBoxer “Anti-Risk Appliance” have cleaned up the database, stripped some of the spam and routine system messages, and made the rest easy-to-search.


You will need to register to search (it’s free). There’s even a series of contests, with iPod Shuffles as prizes. There are three contest sections:

  • The email message whose sender is most deserving to be sacked
  • Enron’s funniest email jokes
  • The most embarassing message for the sender

The search site has been set up in order to advertise the InBoxer Anti-Risk appliance, which can apparently scan outgoing emails and report on those which appear to be personal in nature or which might be divulging company secrets.

But that needn’t get in the way of using these emails for research purposes.

(via Dave)

Daily Stone Age Life – trade and war

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

The Sohi villages are set in rugged mountainous country, the kind that would nowadays be described as “inaccessible”. Of course that’s not quite true – there are ways to get in and out of the valleys, but the combination of steep mountains, rocky slopes and slippery ground make it a major undertaking.

Each valley contains one or a few small villages, but it can be a full day’s trek to get to the next valley. A woman will occasionally undertake the journey, laden with produce to trade. She will also carry food for herself, wrapped in palm leaves – perhaps some taro root that was cooked the previous evening and has been kept warm overnight in the ground oven.

The woman sets off early, and will stay one night before returning home. Hopefully by then she will have traded all her produce. She stays with friends and family, for she was born in that village.

The Sohi people don’t lack for much, so what would she trade her produce for? Well, stones for one thing. The Sohi villages are in primarily limestone country, and limestone doesn’t make very good tools compared to the hard chert stone that comes from the coast. This valuable stone is traded from village to village, passing through hundreds of hands before it arrives at its final destination.

Sea shells are also valued, being the currency by which a “bride price” will be paid. Decorative feathers, too, are sought. Occasionally a small quantity of salt is available that has been traded up from the coast, and this will be exchanged for a large quantity of produce – for the Sohi people, in their hot climate, get little salt in their natural diet and do crave it.

For much of the time, this limited trade is the only contact between the villagers in one valley and those in the next. So difficult is it to pass from one valley to the next, and so infrequent the contact, that different languages have evolved in each valley.

If the Sohi have experienced a few years of good harvests, and are strong and healthy and well-equipped, they may take it upon themselves to raid a village in an adjoining valley. Armed with spears and bows-and-arrows, they will make their way up and over the mountains, hoping to surprise their victims while they sleep.

It’s quite likely that the attacking party will be repelled, because they are limited to the weapons and ammunition that they can carry with them, and are limited in numbers. But in the event that they are successful they will raid the village, rape some of the women, and capture some young women as brides to take back to their own village.

It’s brutal behaviour, but it does spread the genetic material of the successful tribes, and it does prevent genetic degradation due to the intense inbreeding that would otherwise occur in these isolated societies.

So now we see why it is the women who travel from valley to valley to trade produce for stones, because they are returning to visit the village from which they were kidnapped many years previously.

The aim of the attacking party is to stage what is effectively a smash-and-grab raid; they are not aiming to inflict casualties. Similarly, those being attacked are primarily concerned with halting the raid rather than inflicting casualties. Nevertheless, deaths do sometimes occur and the deceased will be carried back to his own village.

More common are spear wounds and arrow wounds. Many a Sohi man can point to a scar where a spear went in, and usually also to a scar where the spear came out. If the spear tip has lodged in the flesh, it will usually cause less injury to push it right through than to attempt to pull it back out (which would cause its barbs to trigger much more internal bleeding).

Injuries unrelated to the battle can also occur, commonly broken arms or legs. These will be wrapped with a herbal poultice and the victim will be rested until they recover. Or not. If the wound and the dressing turn a putrid brown colour then everyone knows the victim has only a few days to live, and the victim knows that their bones will soon be joining those of their ancestors on the rock ledges above the lake.

Tribal warfare is not the usual state of things. Most of the time the Sohi channel their energy into growing crops, looking after the pigs, building huts, foraging and hunting for food, then cooking and eating the food.

But there is recreation too, which I’ll mention briefly in the next post.

A “onebox” for Google Answers

Monday, June 12th, 2006

Google Answers Researcher Philipp Lenssen has designed some possible extensions to Google’s “onebox” – the box of specialized results that sometimes appear at the top of the search results.

The most interesting of these (to us) is the onebox for Google Answers. Imagine if this was shown whenever Google detected the kind of query that might be well-suited to a human response…


Searching for phrases on Google

Monday, June 12th, 2006

You probably know that if you want to find this blog using the Google search engine, it won’t help to search for web owls. That search currently returns nine million results, because it finds every page that contains the words “web” and “owls” on it, whether the words are adjacent or not.

You can search for a phrase by enclosing the words in doublequotes. A search for “web owls” returns 144 pages, each of which contains the word “web” followed immediately by the word “owls”.

Google offers an alternative syntax which works the same way, and is not so widely known, but is sometimes easier to type. Simply use a dot between each word: web.owls for example.

Why use this form? If you have searched without quotes and received an unmanageable-large number of results, it’s tedious to click-at-the-start, shift-doublequote, click-at-the-end, shift-doublequote. It’s easier to simply replace the space by a dot.

I also use the dot-form in another situation. Suppose I am trying to find a specific phrase, but don’t remember it properly. For example, suppose I have searched for “able I saw elba” and received no results. It takes a lot of fiddling around with doublequotes to search for various subphrases until I find that a search for able “I saw elba” returns the pages that contain “able was I, ere I saw Elba!”.

Instead, if my original search was for able.i.saw.elba then it is a simple matter to replace various dots by spaces until I search for able i.saw.elba and get the results I want.

Incidentally, there are other characters you can use instead of dots. Slashes, apostrophes and the equals sign work the same way (I’m only interested in punctuation that doesn’t use the shift key on my keyboard).

Other characters, such as hash and hyphen, work differently.

Daily Stone Age Life – Sohi Food

Monday, June 12th, 2006

The Sohi people who live by the lake are fortunate to have a varied and nutritious diet, helped greatly by the availability of fresh fish. Others who live away from the lake are not so fortunate. Nevertheless, there’s still a wide choice of food.

The main staple food is sago starch, harvested from felled sago palms that the tribe planted many years previously and carefully nurtured. Taro root is also a staple, usually cultivated but occasionally growing wild.

There’s not a lot of protein in their diet. It comes from fish, and also from grubs, insects, small birds and rodents. The grubs and insects are obtained by foraging, the rodents by trapping, and the birds by shooting with a bow and arrow – a bamboo bow with a twine drawstring, and a very straight hardwood arrow with a very, very sharp tip.

It’s not easy catching birds this way, and they don’t yield much meat, so they don’t form a large part of the diet. But a bird is not caught just for food – the feathers of the bird (and often the entire wing) are worn proudly on the head as a sign of prowess. The bigger and fancier the feathers, the more admired the wearer will be.

Most of the food is baked in an underground oven. Stones are heated in a fire, a hole is dug, and a layer of hot stones is placed in it. Next comes the food, wrapped in palm leaves. Water is thrown in to keep everything moist, and dirt is heaped on top. Two hours later a steaming baked dinner is ready. It will be eaten using the fingers. There are no spices, but the nutty-tasting grubs add interest, and the slivers of rodent meat “taste just like chicken”, although of course the Sohi don’t know this as they have never seen a chicken.

The mother implores the children to eat their greens so that they may grow up to be strong. Greens are eaten with most meals, and don’t need to be grown as they are available for the picking. There are some trees whose leaves are edible, and a clover-like plant grows pretty-much everywhere.

Dessert is usually nuts and berries, but tonight there’s also papaya. The papaya trees can sometimes be coaxed to grow around the village, and the children are experts at bringing down a papaya by slinging a carefully-aimed stone at it.

The crops are cultivated in heavily-tilled earth, hunched up into square beds raised above the level of the surrounding ground. In this way, and for reasons we don’t yet fully understand, the Sohi achieve yields slightly in excess of what we would be able to grow on the same land.

The Sohi discovered crop rotation long ago, and on one side of the village are crop-beds that are being left fallow this year. Further up the hillside they are clearing some more land for agriculture. They cut down the trees, leave them for six months to dry out, then set fire to the whole area and plant the crop immediately afterwards. It’s not at all unusual to see a fire raging on some distant hillside, but it doesn’t matter: the heavy tropical rain that arrives every afternoon will put out any burnoffs that threaten to turn into wildfires.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the pigs. Although the Sohi keep domestic pigs, and may also trap the occasional wild pig, pigs are only eaten on ceremonial occasions.

Once every few months, there will be a great feast. Sufficient pigs will be killed, each with a single blow to the head from a heavy club. They will be cooked on spits and in the underground ovens, and eaten along with the usual staple foods. At these occasions, everyone gorges themselves for hours until they couldn’t possibly eat any more. There’s enough pig for everyone to have as much as they can eat, provided they don’t feast too often.

Coming next: Trade and war

Ancient Egypt – Another Exodus

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

Phillip was stamping his feet and blowing into his hands. The winds whipping into Alexandria from the sea were bitter. The ports of this Roman occupied city were as busy as they had ever been.

One of the reasons for this was the number of old and established Egyptian business houses that were in the process of taking advantage of Rome’s enlightened trade policies and establishing branch houses throughout the Empire.

That is where I come in. Our family is an ancient one and we have the largest and most famous winery in Egypt. There has been a small export market due to buyers sending the product out of the country. When we found that the prices for our product in other regions of the Empire was near top tier, we decided to eliminate the middle man and go out on our own.

So, here I am, Phillip Digsopter, a scion of an ancient and noble Theban family, off to do business in Athens.

What do I know about living in Greece? Do they even have a history? They seem to have come on the world stage so late. Myth says they claim descent from the Palace Civilizations of Crete. Others, such as the Dorians, claim to come from the North?

And since I, as an Egyptian, am forbidden to live in our own capital city, reserved for Greeks, Romans and foreigners only, I will go live among them.

I wonder if they’ll call me “Digs?”

Seems like everybody in the family has been stuck with that nickname for 2000 years?

Till next time, when we begin a series about ancient Greece. It will sort of be like two soap operas, because the Egyptian history will continue also.

The third soap will begin when we discover that while all this is going on in the Roman and Egyptian worlds, on the other side of the globe, a different type of ancient culture was developing. The Malay had entered the Philippines.

P. Digsopter

A car that runs on water?

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

Google Answers customer madman514-ga had been offered plans for making a car that runs on water. He thought it was maybe too good to be true, and posted a question asking whether it would really work

The basic idea is that electricity from the car battery is used to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then burned to propel the car.


For sure, it’s not going to work. But the information is presented in such a plausible way that I can see why some people might think it will work.

There are a number of different levels at which the answer can be approached:

Physics: The law of conservation of energy tells us right away that producing hydrogen from the water is going to require at least as much energy as we gain by burning the hydrogen and thereby turning it back into water.

Disclaimers: If it is really going to work, why are there so many disclaimers on the website that offers the plans? The disclaimers, by the way, are written to sound so helpful, so sincere. They caution you to save all the parts so that you can put your car back together again in case you can’t get it to work. They caution you to use an old car that won’t cause any problems if it becomes undriveable.

Motives: If it works, why haven’t the people offering the plans already converted their own cars? The most they will admit to is that they “see no reason why it wouldn’t work”.

Money: If it works, why aren’t the people who offer the plans getting rich by converting people’s cars at a thousand dollars a time?

Human nature: The water-to-hydrogen conversion mechanism is fully-described by a US patent which is referenced on the website offering the plans, and which is also widely available on the internet. If it really produced more energy at its output than it required at its input, wouldn’t there be massive academic interest in it?

The asker priced the question at $2.50, so I didn’t write a dissertation on the conservation of energy, but I gave quite a lengthy reply because the question interested me.

I sure hope I am able to save the guy’s time, money and car!

(photo by John Evans)

Daily Stone Age Life – The Lake

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

This Sohi village lies at the outflow of a large lake. It’s a beautiful sight, with its clear water and its surrounding forested mountains. The Sohi people travel about it by canoe – but these are not the kind of canoes that you might have paddled in at Scout Camp.

Each canoe is made by hollowing out a single massive fallen tree. It takes a week of energetic hacking and scraping with a stone axe, before the top of the fallen log and most of its inside wood has been removed, and the log starts to resemble a canoe. Now it is also light enough for a team of men to drag it to the lake for final hacking and balancing.

The sides and bottom of the canoe are left about two inches (50mm) thick, because if too much wood is removed there is a risk that a patch of bad wood will be encountered, or an axe-blow will fall in the wrong place, and a hole will open up which makes the canoe useless for anything except firewood.

The finished canoe is rough but functional. If the shape of the log causes the canoe to be slightly curved, a large rock is strategically placed inside to redress the balance. The canoe can now carry four or more people with ease, plus their tools and harvested crops.

Around much of the lake edge, there are high limestone cliffs riddled with ridges and ledges. A kilometre or so from the village, the bones of ancestors have been placed on the ledges, high up, as an ever-present reminder of those who used to be alive. One ledge is packed with skulls, another ledge holds all of the ribs, and another holds bones from the limbs.

The men travel to their fishing grounds, where they spear their catch using a very sharp almost needle-shaped stone bound with twine to a wooden shaft.

In the middle of the lake is an island, containing a small Sohi settlement, perhaps a dozen family huts and a men’s longhouse. Those who live on the island have used sticks and reeds to construct various forms of fish trap, from which the fish can be snatched by hand.

Just near the canoe landing-place is a patch of smooth mud, on wihch the children have been drawing with sticks. Some of the drawings appear to be part of games of various sorts, and others are representational. The drawings relate to the lives of the people – we see houses, villagers, canoes, fish, plants, trees, pigs and of course fire. Some of the children have tired of drawing, and are amusing themselves rolling stones around a set route by pushing them with a stick.

At the far end of the lake is a third Sohi village, and just beyond its houses are its gardens. In the next part of this series I’ll talk about the food of the Sohi.