What's Behind the Development of Tools? 

Chantilly, France

What is the secret behind man's capacity and desire to develop more complicated, powerful, precise, sometimes abstract, and specialized tools?

Is it survival that drives him?
Is it curiosity that lures him?
Is it a desire to be the master of his environment that incites him?
Is it a need for stimulation that urges him?

The answer to this question could help to anticipate future technological trends.

I was just in Langres yesterday visiting the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire. The exhibits on Paleo and Neololithic human development and the development of metal working brought me back to this question that has been brewing in the back of my mind when I get a spare minute to think about it.

I'm reading McClellan and Dorns "Science and Technology in World History" that I ordered from Amazon. The authors describe the Paleolithic hunter/gathering liftstyle as a sort of "Garden of Eden", a mode of existence which was not given up willingly. Several hypothesis are put forward to explain why humans moved from the hunter/gatherer mode of existence to the Neolithic settled argricultural existence. One is depletion of resources. The human population had grown to the point where the availablilty of game, wild nuts, fruits, and mushrooms could no longer sustain it.

Does the above theory validate the Biblical account of the early history of Man? Was it the experience of the depletion of natural resources which formed the basis for the story of Cain and Abel? The two seem to represent the new technologies of herding and farming which defind the Neolithic human experience.

And what about the concept of the Noble Savage which was so much a part of Rousseau's philosophy and also the development of the ideas behind the American and French revolutions? Is there a connection?

Fire

The discovery of fire was a key element in the history of the development of tools. Fire provides heat for warmth and hardening wooden tools and for cooking which made digesting food easier. It provides light and protection from wild animals. Without fire, materials which can be used for tools are limited to stone, wood, and animal bones, horns and shells. This also includes plant fibers for basketmaking (because baskets decay easily, it is difficult to establish when this technology first appeared in human history.). Fire opens up a whole new realm of available materials in the use of fired clay, glass, lime (concrete), and metal smelting and forging. Fire also allowed man to more easily work the earlier materials of stone and wood by providing secondary tools for this purpose. The early story of tool development is the story of man being able to achieve higher temperatures from fire and the addition of new chemical processes.

Pottery

The temperature of a fire depends on the material being burned and the environment in which it is burning. Campfire temperatures are said to be in the range of 600-650 C. In discussing the firing of pottery according to Derry and Trevor "Primitive man probably had to be content with firing temperatures in the range of 450C to 700C ... At higher temperatures (750 - 800C) such as can be obtained in large open fires or simple kilns chemical changes take place in the clay, making it stronger and less porous." According to McClellan and Dorn "Neolithic kilns produced temperatures upwards of 900C".

Metallurgy

The discovery of the process for making charcoal permitted an increase in the temperature for fires. Higher temperatures can be achieved through the artificial creation of a draft in a kiln or furnace (as increasing the delivery of air (through a device like a bellows) raises the rate of combustion and therefore the heat output). To make charcoal, wood is burned slowly (smoulders) in an oxygen reduced atmosphere which results in a high carbon content fuel. Charcoal burns at a temperature of 1,100C.

The principal tool making metals were copper, lead, tin, and iron. Most often these were found as ores, combinations of the metal elements with other elements such as oxygen or sulphur. Copper was often found as Malachite (copper carbonate), Chalcocite (copper sulfide), or Cuprite (copper oxide). A temperature of 700-800 C is necessary for reduction of Malachite (copper ore) to produce copper nodules. The melting point of pure copper is 1,083C. Lead was found in the ore Galena (lead sulphide). The production of metallic lead from its ore is relatively easy and could have been produced by reduction of Galena in a camp fire. Lead is highly malleable, ductile and noncorrosive making it an excellent piping material. The most common form of tin ore is Cassiterite (tin oxide). Temperatures in excess of 1200C are required to smelt tin. Iron is found mainly in Hemitite (iron oxide). It must be smelted at temperatures above 1100C. The melting temperature of pure iron is 1,535C.

Smelting involves more than just "melting the metal out of its ore". In most ores, the metal is tightly combined with other elements, such as oxygen (as an oxide) or sulfur (as a sulfide). With the exception of mercury oxide, which decomposes at about 500 C (932 F), these compounds will resist temperatures much higher than those that can be attained in a wood- or coal-burning furnace. Smelting therefore requires providing suitable reducing substances that will combine with those oxidizing elements, freeing the metal. The carbon or carbon monoxide derived from it removes oxygen from the ore to leave the metal. As most ores are impure, it is often necessary to use flux, such as limestone, to remove the accompanying rock gangue as slag.

Historically, the first smelting processes used carbon (in the form of charcoal) to reduce the oxides of tin (cassiterite, SnO2), copper (cuprite, CuO) and lead (Lead(II) oxide, PbO), and eventually iron (hematite, Fe2O3) according to the overall reactions

Bronze

Bronze is a metal alloy consisting primarily of copper, usually with tin as the main additive. It was one of the most innovative alloys of mankind. Tools, weapons, armor, and various building materials like decorative tiles made of bronze were harder and more durable than their stone and copper predecessors. Copper and tin ores are rarely found together, so serious bronze work has always involved trade. Though bronze is stronger (harder) than wrought iron, the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age; this happened because iron was easier to find. Bronze was still used during the Iron Age, but for many purposes the weaker wrought iron was found to be sufficiently strong. Archaeologists suspect that a serious disruption of the tin trade precipitated the transition. The population migrations around 1200 1100 BC reduced the shipping of tin around the Mediterranean (and from Great Britain), limiting supplies and raising prices. As ironworking improved, iron became cheaper, and cultures learned how to make steel, which is stronger than bronze and holds a sharper edge longer.

Agriculture

Agriculture provided the basis for civilization in that it generated a food surplus. In the Neolithic period, wheat and other grains were domesticated (first in the fertile crescent and then moving outward to neighboring parts of the world such as Europe). In order to keep a surplus of this grain in a way that it doesn't spoil you need to store it. This spurred the development of basket making and pottery. It also saw the domestication of the cat to protect the grain surplus from rodents.

The first uses of fire probably came in the form of an evident benefit obtained from accidents or unintended outcomes which man learned how to systematically repeat. For example, man may have observed the affect heat has on clay when a fire was built on a hearth of clay.
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Do Shifts in Population Drive Technology Change? 

Chantilly, France

As an IT professional I am interested in peering into the crystal ball to try and discern the future development of technological trends.

I am also convinced that what has happened in the past, i.e. history, can tell us much about what could happen in the future. Within the development of mankind, there are certain things that change, and certain constants which don't change or change very slowly with respect to other changes happening concurrently.

I was recently in a Paris cafe talking with some acquaintances about a number of subjects. One was expressing dissatisfaction at being forced by computer software manufactures in to regularly investing in new tools when he was perfectly satisfied with the ones he was using. It's a good question. Why should be be eternally forced into making these kinds of changes? And then I thought about the need for innovation in our current market oriented society. Without constant innovation, all products will tend to become commodities. When products become commodities, efforts are focussed on reducing the cost to produce them and this in the direction of economies of scale which results in fewer numbers of increasingly larger producers until at some point a monopoly is established and kills the market. Innovation leads to prosperity. Therefore we need to accept the accompanying and constant change.

Then we talked about the present state of the (shrinking) economy and the sustainability of constant economic growth. One driver for economic growth is population. An ever increasing population produces and consumes more and can result in increasing growth. If economic growth does not keep pace with population growth, prosperity declines. If productivity increases so that economic growth outpaces population growth prosperity grows. Today, technology has been a factor in increasing that productivity growth. But increased productivity means increased production and increased consumption of raw materials (oil, metals, wood, fibers). Can the world continue to increase its consumption of a finite quantity of raw materials? No, because at some point we will arrive at a scarcity followed by an exhaustion of raw materials.

And the growing world population complicates the picture even more.

Scarcity forces society to reorganize.

I'm reading a book on Technology and World History, and the author compares the life of Paleolithic man to living in a garden of Eden. At that time, Man was a hunter gatherer. Man stayed as a hunter gatherer society for 2 million years and over that time society changed very little. During this time, man was spreading around the globe and there were always new territory to move to in the search of sustenance. There was therfore no need for society to change or technology to evolve much.

It was only after the resources were exhausted that man was forced into the Neolithic age to move from a hunter gatherer society to a food producing society.

In this case, in the face of a growing population, scarcity forced society to reorganize and develop new technologies.

When will the effects of an increase of the worlds population beyond the ability of the planet to support it begin to be felt in the developed world and how will it be felt? When and how willwe begin to really feel the effects of the unsustainability of the current socioeconomic model?
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Suspending Judgement 

Chantilly, France

About 17 years ago, when I worked as a programmer for a software company in Ann Arbor Michigan I took the Myers Briggs test which was offered by the company. It was offered as a way of helping employees understand how they relate to their coworkers. I think the idea was to help emplyees understand that there are fundamental characteristics of one's personality which can determine how well one relates, interacts, and gets along with other people. Certain personality types work well together. Between others, there could be certain barriers which, when understood, can be overcome.

Without getting into the details of this test, I guess the most understandable part about it is its characerization of people as either introverted or extroverted. I tested strongly introverted which was no surprise to me. Although I enjoy being around friends and trusted acquaintances, I am at times able to tolerate being alone quite well. I'm often surprised that others who I would characterize as having introverted characteristics really hesitate to describe themselves as such. Perhaps its because they associate introvertedness with anti-socialness. I think one very helpful aspect of the test is its clarification that introverted does not mean anti-social. As was explained to the test takers at the time, it is often impossible to superficially distinguish introverts from extroverts. They both attend parties. It's just that when the party is over, the introverts go home and the extroverts go on to the next party.

Another measurement of Myers/Briggs is the Judging/Perceiving "dichotomy". This concept is a little more difficult to understand. I remember testing high on the judging side. I also remember being told that a high judging score does not mean that one is judgemental. But the memory of this test score remains with me today.

A less helpful aspect of the test was the fact that (and this may have no link to Myers/Briggs itself) we were given an indication of which personality types performed better in different roles. I remember that my personality type did not come out favorably in the management role which I found to be somewhat discouraging as it ran counter to my ambition to take on leadership roles within an organization. In this case I found the use of the test to come dangerously close to stereotyping and I didn't like the way that it could be used with the effect of possibly discouraging people to take certain career paths. Am I / was I being overly defensive? I still think that the idea is at least controversial.

I scored high on the judgement/perceiving dichotomy. So am I overly judgemental? Even if it is unrelated to Myers/Briggs, I have a suspicion that I can at times be overly judgemental and that when this happens it distorts my world view. I think that being overjudgemental/critical results in a lot of personal dissatisfaction and unhappiness. When I am overly judgemental, I sometimes justify it by describing myself as dedicated to excellence, or as someone who has high standards. I imagine that for those around me, I come off as being arrogant and close minded.

But as for my adult life, I would also characterize myself as someone who enjoys (selectively) seeking out new experiences and reflecting on cross cultural understanding has long been a hobby of mine. Pursuing this subject has allowed me to gain a perspective on my judgementalness. I remember reading a book on cross cultural experiences many years ago in which it was advised that the best way to avoid culture shock and adapt to a new cultural environment was to suspend judgement. This advice has stayed with me over the years and I think it has served me well. I have certainly obtained an enormous amount of personal satisfication in having successfuly lived by this rule in my life outside of the U.S.

Upon reflecting on my experiences in living and working in a foreign culture, there have been numerous times in which I used old habits and ways of thinking from my own native culture to try and interpret the meaning of events happening around me, and most often I was wrong in my interpretation. I have since learned to mistrust my first reaction to interpreting the messages I receive from people and events and to live with a certain ambiguity when understanding what is happening around me. I have also learned to better accept unexpected reactions or behavior from people without taking it personally. What a blessing this international experience has been as it has allowed me to look much more positively at the world around me.

And yet, I have not been able to transfer this experience in an enduring way to life in my own culture. When I return to the U.S. it is too easy after a certain time to fall back into old habits and to reenter a persona of "closed mindedness".

Generally, I think that Western Society values the part that critical thinking plays in society and views scepticism as healthy. I guess I would agree with this, but up until what point? I think this is one of life's questions for which there is no clear answer. Judgementalness is good in some cases and bad in others. Maybe the most important point has to do with the way we judge people and the way we respect or disrespect them. But that is a topic for another day.


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An Artist never Creates in Isolation 

Chantilly, France

I visited the exhibit "Picasso et les Maitres" today at the Grand Palais in the center of Paris. The exhibit is explained as "210 works from the world's leading collections illustrate the inspiration Picasso drew from the great masters." The reserved tickets are sold out months in advance and if you don't have a reservation, you can stand in line for hours to get in. It can therefore be described as a real "event".

The exhibit juxtaposes a selection of Picasso's works with works from other painters which served as the inspiration for Picasso's art. I did find it very interesting. It provides a perspective on an artist and his inspiration which one rarely finds in a museum.

It's very easy when one visits a museum to look at each work in isolation. The visitor rarely has any insight into the context in which the work was created. This you have to find in the art history books, but I think it's fair to say that few people take the time to do any research before visiting a museum.

I came away from this exhibit with the impression that the development of an artist is very complicated. An artist is very much a product of his environment, his associations with other artists, and the past.

Take Van Gogh for example. In the television series on art history developed by Simon Schama, it is clear that Van Gogh was also very much influenced by the history of art and by other contemporary artists - although he started to paint very late in life and his style was quite distinct from anything that had been done before.

What does this say about originality? Can any art be said to be truly original, if it is in part derived from the past and borrowed from the present?

Is it then just not possible to become an artist from one day to the next? I wonder if there are any cases of a successful artist developing in relative isolation, creating works completely without influence from art and artists of the past and present?
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Why Living in the Occident? 

Chantilly, France

So why did I call my blog "Living in the Occident"?

By Occident I mean living in the Western Culture. I guess I could have called my blog "Living in France" which is where I live now but I wanted the scope of my blog to be larger than that. The name of my blog reflects my approach to living in Europe.

Although some may find it difficult to live outside the country they were born and raised in, I feel as comfortable living abroad as I would in my home country, and sometimes even more comfortable. And I think it is because I focus on the similarities and not the differences. My home country and my resident country are both a part of Western Culture. And so I find enough similarity between them that the behaviors and events I experience day to day outside of my home country no longer seem foreign. It is easy for me to see the connection between what I see and experience in France, and what I would see and experience in my native country.

The Western countries are linked by a common set of values. Although there are differences between them, I would argue that those differences are very much insignificant in comparison to their similarities. To be sure, language is a devisive element within the West and much cause for misunderstanding. So is history, with the long legacy of war between the Western nations. But once the language barrier is overcome, stereotypes begin to melt away and the memory of war and conflict begins to fade and what is essential in all of us is what remains. The challenges that each Western country faces, are similar in nature.

Take, for example, immigration. The U.S. faces a challenge of immigration from the poor southern countries of the Western hemisphere, (even if they themselves can be counted among the Western block of nations.) Europe is faced with a challenge of immigration from Islamic countries (Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco) and Sub-Saharan countries.

I think that in the future, it will become more and more important for the Western countries to work together to promote their values in the context of a world becomming increasingly influenced by powers outside of the Western sphere. And in the future, as cultures from outside of the West mix with the western cultures due to immigration, it is necessary for the Western countries to define what it really means to be a citizen. Is it a matter of origins, or commonly held values? All western countries struggle today with this issue. Do we as a whole spend more money trying to keep immigrants out, then we do trying to promote Western values to those who have made it in?

Let's face it, the demographics of our republics and democracies are changing. In a few decades the White/Christian makeup will probably become a minority. In North American, the Anglo-Saxon legacy may cease to dominate. But there is no reason why Western values need be under threat, if an effort is made to educate all in the importance of those values. The most important values are those that are enshrined in our constitutions and in our bills of rights.

One of the objectives of this blog is to identify what those values are and how are they manifested in our everyday world. And how did these values develop over centuries of Western history?
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