The knapping o’ the flint

Yesterday I attended a delightful session at the Hillside Club on flintknapping, the process of making stone tools, with Dr Bruce Bradley. Far from just a technical demonstration about how to make knives out of rocks, it was a fascinating conversation about anthropology and ancient cultures before the invention of metallurgy.

Bruce Bradley describes the obsidian flake he will produce when he strikes the nodule in just the right way. His striking tools and another obsidian nodule are on the ground at left, other kinds of flint and chert nodules on the right.

First we watched Bruce’s 1988 video Flintknapping, where he makes four tools from a single piece of obsidian. I first thought he meant four individual finished obsidian tools, but in fact he meant four successive tools from the same piece of obsidian. Assuming that an archaic Native American hunter has just killed a bison, Bruce first made a knife with which to skin the bison. After the skinning process is finished, Bruce then reformed the skinning knife into a rougher, serrated tool for separating the meat from the bones. Once the meat has been removed, Bruce worked the tool into a thin knife for slicing the meat into strips (in order to dry and smoke the meat for preservation). The fourth and last tool in the sequence is a spearhead to attach to the spear so that the hunter is armed for the home journey (and because the hunter’s original spearhead was probably damaged when he killed the bison). Thus, what starts out as a large skinning knife ends up as a spearhead less than half the size.

An hour later, the Buchanan Eared arrowhead is nearing completion. Note all the flakes on the ground produced by the knapping process. Many of these can be made into smaller tools.

After the video, we all moved outside to watch Bruce create a “Buchanan Eared arrowhead”, which was the type made by the local Ohlone tribes. During his work, Bruce happily answered many questions, such as:

  • Is it possible to tell whether the maker of a given piece was right-handed or left-handed? Some people think so. It’s still a matter of discussion.
  • Do you ever find student-made pieces in an archaeological setting, as if it were an ancient classroom? Yes! There is a site in France where tools were dug up along with all the flakes from that tool’s production. By carefully piecing all the flakes together, the researchers were able to rebuild the original nodule and demonstrate the skill (or lack of it) as the piece was shaped. In several instances, they were able to show an beginner knapper who got stuck at a particular place, followed by a few expert strokes by the teacher to show the student how to fix the problem, followed by more novice clunking.
  • Do you agree with the hypothesis that the development of knapping technology went hand-in-hand with the development of human language? Lots of work is being done in this area. One researcher conducted two sets of training sessions with brand-new knapping students: one using standard English, and the other using no spoken words at all—only hand signals. He found that the ‘mute’ group could only progress so far: there existed situations where gestures could not help the students solve the problem at hand.
  • Are there many modern arrowheads on the market being represented as old authentic ones? Yes indeed, very many. Experts can generally tell them apart, but be extremely careful if you’re buying ancient artifacts.

Leaving the Old Country forever

On the mezzanine of the Berkeley restaurant Trattoria La Siciliana, there is a reproduction of a vintage Italian poster. It advertises the 1910 Palermo Festival, held from the 1st to the 7th of May, culminating with an airplane show above the city harbor. Just three weeks after that airshow, from the same harbor, my 16-year-old grandmother took perhaps the most emotional steps of her life.

Palermo Festival 1910
Poster for the Palermo Festival, 1-7 May 1910

Exactly 100 years ago today, 28 May 1910, my grandmother Onofria Napoli, along with her older sister Antonia, boarded a ship in Palermo and sailed for America, never to return. The Napoli family emigrated in the classic fashion: the oldest brother left in 1903 and, over time, sent money back to Sicily so the next brother could leave in 1905. They were followed by another brother and the two sisters in 1910, and finally, the two youngest brothers in 1923. Of the nine children, only two stayed in Sicily.

How hard life must have been in Italy to make an immigrant’s lot in America seem better! My grandmother, along with most of her siblings, went into the tailoring industry in Chicago. I have a photograph, dating from about 1915, of a large room inside a clothing manufacturing company. There are about thirty people in the room, most hunched over sewing machines. My grandmother is there, and two seats away is her future husband, my grandfather. Almost everyone is dressed well: the men in matching shirts, vests and neckties. I wonder why this photograph was taken: publicity? It definitely doesn’t resemble any of the unsettling, oft-published photographs of sweatshops full of unhappy immigrants.

June 10th will be the centennial of my grandmother’s arrival at Ellis Island—two weeks in a ship across the Atlantic Ocean, with goodness knows how many other immigrants—and in a perfect world, I would visit Ellis Island on June 10th to celebrate the occasion. Unfortunately, that trip won’t be possible; I’ll have to go another time. Perhaps on the centennial of my grandfather’s arrival at Ellis Island in 2011.

I can’t help but think of a story told by the late biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould in his book I Have Landed. His grandfather, a Hungarian Jew, sailed from Antwerp on 31 August 1901, and later annotated his English grammar book with “I have landed, Sep 11th 1901” One hundred years later, on 11 Sep 2001, Gould was flying from Europe to New York City to be at Ellis Island for the centennial of his grandfather’s arrival—and we all know what happened that day. Gould’s plane from Milan landed in Halifax instead. Here is an excerpt from his essay “September 11, ’01”

Especially in a technological age, when airplanes can become powerful bombs, rare acts of depravity seem to overwhelm our landscape, both geographical and psychological. But the ordinary human decency of a billion tiny acts of kindness, done by millions of good people, sets a far more powerful counterwieght, too often invisible for lack of comparable “news value.” The trickle of one family that began on September 11, 1901, multipled by so many million similar and “ordinary” stories, will overwhelm the evil of a few on September 11, 2001.

My family’s trickle began one hundred years ago today. Here’s to you, Grandma.

Martin Gardner—Author, Puzzler and Renaissance Man

When I was a teenager, one of the highlights of every month was the arrival of  Scientific American magazine. I would immediately turn to Martin Gardner’s delightful column Mathematical Games. Gardner died on May 22 at the age of 95.

“I came to understand that there were thousands of people spread all around the world: mathematicians, physicists, philosophers, computer scientists, on and on, who thought of Martin Gardner’s column not merely as a feature of Scientific American, but as its very heart and soul.”

Author Douglas Hofstadter in 1992, as quoted by Scientific American‘s Steve Mirsky in their podcast conversation of 24 May 2010

Little did I realize how many other teenagers (let alone tenured professors) shared my much-anticipated monthly pastime:

“When I came to know Martin Gardner’s column, I was probably on the order of fourteen years old… I will always remember the excitement if I went to the mailbox at my parents’ house and found that the copy of Scientific American had arrived. And I instantly flipped it open, looked to the page where Martin Gardner’s column was, went to that page, and was riveted by whatever he said, every time, without any exceptions.

“And I realized later—not at that time, perhaps many years later—that many, many, many people did exactly that, that in some sense Scientific American itself was just the wrapping for Martin Gardner’s column… It was so full of profundity and exploration of fantastic new ideas, so stimulating to people who enjoy mathematics or philosophy, the savoring of beauty and paradox mixed together, with also a wonderful dose of sense of humor.”

Douglas Hofstadter talking with Steve Mirsky later in that same conversation

I always felt a bit guilty about ignoring most of the rest of the magazine, with its scholarly articles on quantum physics, viral genetics or nuclear detente treaties. But I shouldn’t have been: Gardner had been delighting Scientific American‘s readers since before I was born. His Mathematical Games column ran from 1956 until 1981; here I share four of them that remain particularly fresh in my memory:

  • Eleusis, a card game devised by Robert Abbott. Gardner wrote about the game in October 1977; I xeroxed the column and then spent many delightful afternoons playing Eleusis, particularly at the Planina folkdance camp in the Santa Cruz mountains.
  • The art of tesselations, the tiling of an infinite plane with shapes such that there are no gaps or overlaps
  • A review of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Based on Gardner’s glowing review I bought the book, although many sections were quite beyond me.
  • Perhaps my favorite: the April 1974 column, which contained a half-dozen remarkable new scientific discoveries, all of which turned out to be an elaborate April Fool’s Day hoax. In the podcast quoted above, Hofstadter talks about Gardner’s fascination with hoaxes, including how Gardner once wrote a pseudonymous negative review of one of his own books.

Later in high school, a friend told me about Gardner’s Annotated Alice, with its erudite and playful notes on both Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass. Gardner clearly enjoyed annotating books, and I collected several more: Oddities and Curiosities, The Annotated Casey at the Bat, and The Annotated Night Before Christmas.

For my birthday in 2000, my wife Arlene gave me Gardner’s latest book, From the Wandering Jew to William F. Buckley Jr. In it I discovered an essay entitled “John Martin’s Book: A Forgotten Children’s Magazine.” Gardner was a subscriber to John Martin’s Book in 1921 when he was seven years old. He wrote to John Martin for an autograph, who obliged saying “I rather send it to you than a king.” I was astounded and delighted by the essay: John Martin was the pen name of Morgan Shepard, the author and one-time partner of Paul Elder, the San Francisco book publisher I had been researching since the 1990s. After all these years, I suddenly had a scholarly connection to one of my favorite authors! I immediately wrote to Gardner, telling him about my research into Elder’s and Shepard’s careers, and gave him one of my Elder checklists. Although I never heard back—I knew Gardner was already in poor health, and could only imagine the mail he must have received on a daily basis—the connection satisfied me on a deep level, and is something I will hold dear throughout my life.

Here are some more tributes to Martin Gardner:

Help NASA map the moon!

A robotic spacecraft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, is currently orbiting the moon. The LRO is sending back so much data, however, that NASA is asking for help in analyzing it. Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott created the website (part of the Zooniverse Project), where anyone can log on, watch a training video and begin identifying objects on the lunar surface.

One of the lunar images I annotated for the MoonZoo project

Today I created an account on MoonZoo and very quickly I was identifying craters, boulders, mounds, linear features and other objects. There’s even a tiny chance that the picture you’re shown will include man-made objects: a non-functioning lander from the 1960s, for example. It’s very absorbing—I spent about 30 minutes marking craters when I really should have been working on something else.

This enabling of easy public participation in the advancement of science is one of the things I love best about the Internet.

The coolest canyon in town

My home town of Fremont, California is a modern creation, formed in 1956 from five towns in the old Washington Township: Centerville, Niles, Irvington, Mission San Jose and Warm Springs. My village was Centerville, but Niles easily wins the contest for Most Historically Significant.

And that history all revolves around the canyon. Very picturesque, and still mostly unimproved. Two flour mills were built at the mouth of the canyon in 1850 and 1856 by the Vallejo family, owners of the Mexican land grant covering southern Alameda County. Some of the mill foundations survive and are a California registered landmark.

A railway was built through the canyon in 1869: no less than the famed Transcontinental Railroad on its way to the western terminus in Alameda (although a new route through Benicia bypassed Niles Canyon in 1879). Until Interstate 680 was built in the mid-1970s, Niles Canyon was our road from Fremont to Pleasanton and Livermore. I particularly remember several family expeditions through the canyon on the way to the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton.

Water politics also have played a big part in the canyon’s history. Alameda Creek, the river that runs through the canyon, flooded periodically until the creek was channeled in the 1960s. The Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct intersects Niles Canyon at the far end, underneath the Sunol Water Temple. Several tributaries of Alameda Creek are still owned by the San Francisco Water District and are off-limits to the public.

Niles Canyon also has its very own ghost—how many towns can say that?

Niles’s biggest claim to fame, however, is as a center of filmmaking. Chicago-based Essanay Studios, tired of how the long midwest winters limited the filming season, opened a studio in Niles in 1913. Essanay’s co-owner was Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson, the world’s first cowboy movie star. Many of his 376 Broncho Billy movies were filmed in Niles Canyon, where the scenery and the railroad line made it easy to create a “wild west” feel. In 1914 Essanay hired Charlie Chaplin and filmed several of his movies in Niles Canyon, including, most famously, The Tramp. Chaplin left Essanay in 1915 and the studio closed the following year, but by then Niles had already been eclipsed by Hollywood as the center of the movie industry: filmmakers preferred both Southern California’s warmer weather and brighter sunlight, and the proximity to a major city.

Then as now, Niles is rather isolated by the wide channel of Alameda Creek as it exits the canyon. Perhaps because of this, more than a few 19th-century buildings survive in the town center. Recently, the old railroad station has been restored. Give Niles a visit the next time you’re in Fremont.