About the Author
In other words
|The Ice Age
|It's no secret that I believe that modern progress is sometimes no such thing. Industrial food production has exposed the world to chemicals and preservatives unknown to nature, let alone to pre-21st century kitchens, and the effect on human health is questionable at best. For me solid wood floors for walking on, cast iron pots and pans for cooking and wood fires for heating are all way better than their modern counterparts.
There's one exception where I'll happily sing the praises of progress. Step forward, modern plumbing and take a bow. It's said of a technology that it has become established when it 'becomes part of the plumbing' – in other words, when it's there and not even noticed. Until it stops working.
That happened to us a fortnight ago. We had a severe freeze after a long period without snow. It's a little known fact that snow is an excellent insulator. Without snow on the ground, the cold in the air penetrated the earth and at -30c the pipes froze. You can survive hereabouts without water in winter. The stuff is literally waist deep outside in the form of ice and snow. (The snow is just not on the parts you need it for insulation but lying about in heaps in the back yard.) So we had coffee made from icicles, and washed in buckets of melted snow.
It was survivable, but a huge chore. When it takes ten minutes work to get the water to boil an egg you begin to appreciate how hard it must have been in the days before plumbing was taken for granted. Fortunately the 21st century came to our rescue. A warming belt wrapped around the pipe where it emerged from the ground and a heating mat over the frozen area eventually restored hot showers and flush toilets. But it was a definite reminder. Enjoy studying the past – but you wouldn't want to live there.
|So, how is 2024 going for you?
Hopefully you are using the start of another year to pause and take stock – now that twelve shiny new months lie ahead, how will you use them? Also, now that 2023 has dropped into the past, what can we learn from the year that was?
That's what I'm doing right now. Admittedly this is partly displacement activity before I plunge into the backlog of work that has built up over the Xmas break, but its a worthwhile exercise in its own right. One thing I learn from 2023 is that I didn't learn from 2022, or 2021 or the years before that. I still take on too many projects and get sidetracked by plunging enthusiastically down research rabbit holes.
One way to cope with this overload – and there's no point in doing things if they're not done properly – is to shed the inessentials from daily life. Things like interaction with live humans and (for example) trips to restaurants and the cinema. However, as my long-suffering wife often points out, this is not ideal and the better alternative is not to take on so much in the first place. But while there's so much to study and write about, how can I not?
One thing is non-negotiable though. We are fortunate to live amid the best scenery and natural environment in the world. I may not get downtown in the evenings, but there will always be time for the forests and lakes. Apart from anything else I often come back from hiking or kayaking refreshed and with a whole bunch of new ideas to lure me even further off track.
|Pictures and Words
|'Don't judge a book by its cover' is the wise proverb you've probably heard dozens of times. Yet in a literal sense you have probably done exactly that judging dozens of times. This thought struck me when I was looking at sales of one of my books over the past year.
When Christmas is coming I need to estimate the size of my December royalty cheque and work out whether I'll be ordering top-quality holiday reading from Amazon or digging through the bargain bucket at my local charity store. The sales figures showed that one book of mine which had been doing well before was now doing fantastic. The reason – the publisher had changed the cover.
When digging through the bargain bucket at the charity store (okay, I still do that even when royalties are good, because it's a cheap and fun way to discover new authors) a cover strongly influences whether I select a book or not. The author is a complete unknown, the blurb is essentially useless as it, as blurbs do, informs me that this is (but wasn't) a seminal work of 20th century literature. So I'm left with the cover.
An author has some say – but not a veto - in what cover is used, so there's some reflection of the writer's personality there, which personality should also show in the text. Also the editors who choose the cover should be at least sympatico with the author, so the cover reflects the ethos of the team as a whole. A lazy cliché of a cover suggests that the editors did not consider the book worth the investment of more effort – and they should know.
One result of that is that I've done considerable polling as to what my latest book cover should be based on. Friends and Facebook followers on the internet are generally in favour of a proposed cover that would have been my third choice. One friend who is actually in marketing told me that my own favourite was 'too geeky'. Ouch.
|Going Old School
|Recently it became clear that the dining room floor needed to be replaced. My wife and I decided that when we replaced the floor firstly, it must look good and secondly, it should only need doing again in a century or so.
As ever, if you want something durable, go back to the past. Our gas furnace is three decades old and regarded as an ancient horror by service technicians. However that furnace is only the back-up to a wood stove that would have been immediately familiar to an ancient Roman. That wood stove is scheduled to pack in some time around AD 2150. Likewise we used to get through a Teflon type frying pan every three years. Now we use an old-fashioned cast-iron pan that, with proper care, is basically indestructible. You get the idea.
So for a durable floor we decided on solid hardwood planks. Inquiries (it's a small town) found us a maple floor from an old house. The planks had been taken up after water damage and have spent the 21st century drying out in someone's basement. The way you persuade somewhat warped planks to fit seamlessly together is you don't nail from the top but at an angle through the side. If you do this always from the same direction, row after row, the wood slowly bends back into shape from the pressure.
So that's what we have been doing for the past month. The result is a rather handsome-looking floor, laid in the manner that such floors have been laid for millennia. The main difference is that, rather than painfully hammering in the nails by hand, we used a powerful pneumatic nailer. Old-school is great, but need not be taken too far.
|Ivory Towers and Stone Balls
|For some time academics have wondered about the carved stone balls found in neolithic settlements such as Skara Brae in the Orkneys. Various ideas have been suggested – that they are totemic symbols, that they are passed from hand to hand to show the speaker at a meeting, that they indicate possession of the thing that they are placed upon, and so on.
Which is one of the things about academics – they need more exposure to the real world.
When I first saw those 'mysterious' stone balls, I thought 'Oh, cheese mould blanks' and did not realize that no-one else had considered this. I have family in the Tatry mountains of Poland where traditional cheeses of similar shapes are still made (albeit with wooden moulds).
At Skara Brae the process would have worked like this. Make your master copy from carved stone, then bake clay around it in two halves. Remove the carved stone to make more moulds and fill the two baked clay mould halves with cheese curds and compress. Afterwards dip the pressed cheese in hot whey and finally smoke it. We still do this at home for fancy mozzarellas, albeit using purchased moulds.
Even if this was not the purpose of the carved stone balls, you could certainly make pretty cheese with the things even today. But see for yourself – look up 'Oscypek' and 'Skara Brae stone balls' and note the similarities. Also note that all these stone balls are carved in such a way that clay mould halves would come off easily after baking.
Food for thought ...
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