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January 6, 2003

Cutting-edge technology
Posted by Teresa at 09:54 AM *

As Heinlein once said, “Long after the first star ship leaves for paths unknown, there will still be outhouses in upstate New York.” I expect he’ll be right, assuming that ship ever leaves at all. Few technologies ever go away completely.

Consider that there are guys out there right now, in this first-worldliest of countries, whose pleasure it is to knap flints, cherts, and obsidians into stone knives and arrowheads. The blades they make are pretty, but you can skin a deer with those things, and do surgery, and get past airport metal detectors. (Clovis points: the original North American superweapon.) On the other hand, you could just open your mail.

Naturally, once you’ve got a scene like that going, some flint-knappers are bound to get way good at what they do, and start turning it into art, and getting weird. Which brings us to the most Gibsonesque artifacts I know of: Stone tools made from fiber optic glass.

They also make them out of fused millefiori glass trade beads. And salvaged sky-blue glass from an old stage light lens Corning made for Hollywood in 1938. And vitrolite, that opaque architectural glass they used to use on storefronts. (Judging from the color, I’d guess that piece was salvaged from the facade of an old Woolworth’s building.)

I don’t know. Maybe future histories of materials science say that this was the period in which we finally started to get over our millennia-long initial infatuation with metal technology. And then again, maybe not.

Comments on Cutting-edge technology:
#1 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 11:47 AM:

Well, we all know that a sufficiently clever Science Officer can make a duotronic memory unit from stone knives and bearskins, so why not make stone knives from duotronic memory units?

However, seeing arrowheads made from fiber optic glass tempts me to see if I can find some neodymium-doped glass (probably in a Livermore Labs dumpster) and make a flashlamp-pumped stone-arrowhead laser.

#2 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 12:20 PM:

A skilled knapper wouldn't even need to get a finished weapon past airport security -- just a few rocks. She and her accomplices get to tapping while the flight attendant demonstrate the seat belt and oxygen mask, and by the time the seatbelt indicator goes out the team is ready to make its move. Who needs box-cutters?

#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 12:32 PM:

Jordin, the geek points for that would go off the scale. You could probably make a deal with a knapper, trading extra neodymium-doped glass for a finished piece.

What does the stuff look like, by the way?

#4 ::: Paul Riddell ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 01:00 PM:

What's interesting is that these pieces are probably much more beautiful than these pictures give them credit. My wife has been working with fiber optic cable for jewelry purposes since '95, and some of it, properly dyed first, is stunning. It's very much like tiger-eye, only without the danger of inhaling asbestos fibers.

Now, if you want the particulars on flintknapping (I've dabbled in it for the past five years, start with _Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools_ by John C. Whittaker (University of Texas Press, 1994). The book hits on basic tools necessary for making stone tools, as well as what to look for in materials. I've known plenty of people who work with standard glass for its aesthetic value (I met one knapper last year who made absolutely stunning erratic blades out of old champagne bottles, and most good knappers know how to make arrowheads out of the bottoms of beer bottles), but Whittaker was one of the first to point out the merits of working with modern materials. (In his case, he went on a trip to New Mexico to look for cherts and found that the local cherts were nearly unusable, but a local recommended that he look into slag from the local molybdenum smelter. Apparently this stuff was some of the best knapping media he's ever found, with a beautiful blue sheen. I'll have to hunt this down myself.)

With this in mind, what I'm curious to see is how many knappers use high-tech materials for uses other than blades. I have some ideas myself that I've been testing with rainbow obsidian, but I can't wait to get a chance to try them with large pieces of fiber-optic cable or even with opalite. Oh, the fun I'll have...

#5 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 01:06 PM:

Alan, I've thought about that while watching airport security confiscate nail clippers because they have that little fold-out nail file on them. You wouldn't even have to bring rocks with you -- not when they sell juice in glass bottles on the other side of the barrier.

Thing is, it's not exactly an unobtrusive process. Also, you'd probably have to demonstrate to the hijackees that your weird-looking blade actually worked. But the real problem is that you'd get torn to pieces by the other passengers no matter what kind of blade you were carrying.

If I were a terrorist, I'd think it was a bad idea to get myself locked up with a bunch of people who were convinced that their patriotic duty, not to mention their only survival option, was to kill or disable me by any means possible.

Department of Homeland Security: Protecting America from the really stupid terrorists.

#6 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 01:57 PM:

Sadly, neodymium-doped glass doesn't really look all that different from normal glass-- the dopant levels aren't really that high.

I was tremendously disappointed to discover that there wasn't a glittering multi-faceted blue stone at the heart of the titanium-sapphire laser I used in grad school, but rather a tiny cynlinder of ordinary-looking glass...

#7 ::: catie murphy ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 02:30 PM:

You may or may not have discovered this already, but the links to the actual .jpg files for flintknappers come up with a 'you can't link to a non-html file, you dirty rat' page. Or words to that effect, anyway.

Y'know, I hadn't thought about stone knives and airplanes. I'd thought about a number of other things that good law-abiding citizens wouldn't think about, but stone hadn't occured to me.

"Protecting America from the really stupid terrorists." *cackle*

#8 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 02:33 PM:

I suspect that the soda glass used to make juice bottles wouldn't hold a really good edge: that stuff is pretty soft and also prone to oxidizing on fresh surfaces and edges. If my mental model of this is right, Pyrex™ would be even worse.

I'm thinking that a practical glass weapon for close-in fighting in a hijacking would be more like a squirtgun delivering a liquid agent or a low-barrel-pressure projectile weapon with an unconventional propellant and an active agent as a payload in the projectiles. Something horrific in order to shock the passengers and crew into cooperation, or at least reduce their will to join the confrontation. Even sulfuric acid (vitriol) is fearsome: engineered vesicants could easily deter anyone not trained to advance into the face of immediate pain, disfigurement, maiming, and blindness. Not so great for non-suicide campaigns, as it decreases the hostage value of the passengers substantially.

#9 ::: Clark Myers ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 03:10 PM:

The suggestion is to laminate glass exposed between 2 of the flat sided CIA letter openers, or wood or whatever and sharpen on a sanding belt for quick and dirty weapon use with fewer concerns for breaking and cheaper than quality ceramic kitchen knives. You may cover this in links I couldn't access but there has been a fair amount of publicity about surgery around Pullman WA (WSU) using traditional materials - I think flintlocks are mostly agate locks this days too if you can fire blackpowder on any of your favorite ranges that might be fun too -.

#10 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 03:39 PM:

Paul, you knap arrowheads? That is seriously cool. I have this hunk of bloodstone...

Chad, I'm disappointed. I've always assumed there were sapphires in titanium-sapphire lasers. I used to have a chunk of laser-grade ruby, lost and much regretted; it was a beautiful deep red, and you could write stuff on glass with it.

Catie, the links to (the morrisonite and wonderstone points linked from "turning it" and the green fiber optic point linked from "optic") work just fine on my system. Which browser are you using?

Bob, it wouldn't have to hold an edge for very long.

Other deterrents might well be shocking or horrifying, but the whole concept of deterrence is in question if the passengers believe their alternative is being torn to pieces in a fiery plane crash. Under those circumstances, you're looking for literal stopping power rather than deterrence value; and shooting off a lot of heavy rounds is not a good idea when you're that high up.

#11 ::: Adina Adler ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 04:11 PM:

Teresa, I'm getting the linking error too, but only on the mookmirror.JPG file. It looks like some sort of filter that the hosting site has set up, but I don't know why it doesn't work for the other pictures. (The error says something on the order of, "You must not link to non-html pages on our site that aren't part of a paid account.")

#12 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 04:21 PM:

Teresa, Catie's right: the server is rejecting calls for (e.g.) from the word "optic" (Message below.) as direct calls for just the graphics.

This will probably still work for you because your browser likely answers calls for those graphics from its cache. If you want to take a chance on feeling others' pain, clear your browser's cache and try again.

Here's the buzz-off message:

A Hotlinking Error Has Occured!

We have detected a hotlinking error. Hotlinking is when you link to images or NON html files on from another host. Hotlinking is not allowed for our FREE Accounts. Hotlinking is allowed for our paid accounts. Your account can be upgraded in the user section when you have logged in.

#13 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 04:48 PM:

Dad used to tell me about Uncle Jake making flint arrowheads, and when he showed them to some native Americans, they wouldn't give them back. They said he had stolen them. After that, he made some out of Coca-Cola glass (which is strong stuff -- when I worked in the Comic Center, I used to have a Coke bottle around to use for hammering nails into the wall).

#14 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 05:59 PM:

The links have been Dealt With by replacing them with links to other, more reasonable sites.

I'm mildly irritated. The site is badly organized and constructed. If I didn't link directly to their images, my citations would look like AAA's pre-interstate driving instructions: "Go to this URL, click on thus-and-such link, and when it has loaded scroll down until you reach..."

While I was at it I tidied up a few sentences, and changed the title of the piece to something I can't believe I didn't think of earlier.

#15 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 07:20 PM:

There's a summary of the history of "pigmented structural glass" (Vitrolite, Carrara Glass, and Sani Onyx) from "sanitary" application as a washroom divider panel to the modernization of Main Street in National Park Service Preservation Brief No. 12 along with instructions for preservation, maintenance, and replacement.

Looks like pigmented structural glass was a "new" material which paid for its original popularity with cash in hand. Nasty stuff, really, designed to be slapped up on a light metal framework attached to the original wall, glued to the original masonry with hot daubs of asphaltic mastic. Hard to maintain, comes unstuck with little warning, and a tempting target for smashing even if it doesn't fall off. It's better off knapped.

#16 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 07:29 PM:

Teresa: I sent you email about those bad links much earlier this morning. I'm not seeing those hot linking error messages anymore, but instead am getting a blank page with a note in the uppper left corner that this image is hosted by I was getting that one earlier on a couple of the links. I'm using Mozilla 1.2.1 on a Mac.


#17 ::: cheem ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 07:44 PM:

That's just angelfire being nasty. Copy the link and paste it in the URL bar. Clear the browser cache if this doesn't work.

#18 ::: Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 07:54 PM:

Thanks. That is fascinating and very cool.

#19 ::: Mark Bourne ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 08:29 PM:

I so loved the "first star ship ... outhouses" line that I Googled for it and found this page of Heinlein's Nostradamisms from 1950, plus his 1965 update:

Among the tidbits from 1950 is this:
"It is utterly impossible that the United States will state a 'preventative war.' We will fight when attacked, either directly or in a territory we have guaranteed to defend."

Amended with this update:
"Since 1950 we have done so in several theatres and are doing so as this is written, in Viet Nam. 'Preventative' or 'pre-emptive' war seems as unlikely as ever, no matter who is in the White House."

(Of course, he also maintained that "By the end of this century ... the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be abuilding." Ah well.)

#20 ::: Jon Hendry ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 11:46 PM:

Teresa wrote:
"Thing is, it's not exactly an unobtrusive process."

That's the key. You have to learn how to do flint knapping using only a properly manipulated seatback tray table.

Extra points for panache if the knapping is done when the person in front of you reclines their seat.

#21 ::: Emmet ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:41 AM:

What this reminds me of is a conversation at a convention in Dublin in which someone - I think it was Bernd Kremmer from the C.J. Cherryh mailing list - proposed a hand-axe knapped out of mass-produced diamond composed of pure carbon-13.

#22 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:11 AM:

>Extra points for panache if the knapping is done when the person in front of you reclines their seat.

I've always found it easy to knap on airplanes; that's why they provide kpillows.

#23 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 02:53 PM:

Emmet, would that hand-axe have unusual properties, aside from being hyper-cool?

BTW, check out the second comment following this post.

#24 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 03:15 PM:

Teresa: Such an axe would have a half-life in the billions of years. Carbon-13 is incredibly stable, and the diamond crystal is incredibly durable.

#25 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 04:13 PM:

Though I would be very surprised if you could knap diamond; knapping as a process depends on materials which will fracture conchoidally, and I don't think you can get non-planar fractures in diamond.

Very cool if you could do it, though.

#26 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:30 PM:

I want to meet the flintknapper who knapped Isengard.

#27 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:48 PM:

It's certainly unlikely that anyone would be able to hand-knap a tool out of diamond. Maybe that magician in the Jack Vance story who'd had so much time on his hands while exiled at the edge of the universe that he'd built up the speculative cities of number of imaginary civilizations, all of which had had plenty of time to decay to ruins. The chips you could take off would be pretty darn small.

I'm not sure what the deal with Carbon-13 is supposed to be: my recollection and limited googling to refresh it agree that Carbon-12 and Carbon-13 are both stable isotopes.

#28 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:51 PM:

Bob: I think specifically carbon-13 to mean "no carbon-14"--i.e., radioactively pure. Also, carbon-13 is about 8% heavier than carbon-12, so it would have more heft....

#29 ::: Emmet ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 11:26 AM:

Teresa; hyper-coolness was the primary desired feature; the context was a discussion of artifacts which could plausibly turn up in, and be used by, a quite low-tech civilisation but which would require a much higher tech civilisation to produce, and which were not obvious as such. [ This on the assumption, come to think of it, that a knapped diamond hand-axe looked dull and grey as unpolished diamond and did not by its nature have give-away shiny bits ]. The isotopic pureness was a suggestion for something that might be a clue to a higher tech level again, I haven't looked into how difficult it is to separate carbon-13 from carbon-12 but IIRC from high school it would have to be by something that relied on the relatively small weight difference and gave small and gradual increases in the proportion of carbon 13 with every iteration, and I could find it credible that an absolutely pure carbon-13 might be a tech level above macro-scale diamond manufacture. I'd really like to come up with an example of an artifact that had several nested tech levels in its making, as it were; so that as one's ways of examining it became more sophisticated, it would become clear that it required more advanced technology than was previously obvious. Thinking about the hand-axe that way just led the conversation into Eganesque wittering about neutrons and string theory, though; I'd prefer to be able to nest examples of existing technologies.

Oh, and that was a cool conversation, I'm very pleased to think it might serve as a fitting example of the nature of our tribe.

#30 ::: Janice ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 12:05 PM:

I note in passing that it's possible to make "Johnstone points" out of common household objects:

Janice in GA
beginning flintknapper, archer, and atlatlist

#31 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 12:13 PM:

Emmet, along the lines of amazingly high levels of coolness...

Separation processes at a level above atom-by-atom selection will always leave some amount of the undesired component in the product. For an amount of material sufficient to make a hand axe, you'd expect some amount of C-12 in the finished product. Either atom-by-atom selection -- or even better, exactly-controlled nuclear synthesis -- would be quite an advanced technology. I can imagine analysts becoming quite puzzled as they used more and more precise techniques to lower the maximum amount of C-12 that could be present in the axe and not detected.

It might be worth having a few hundred unit-cells' thickness of Silicon Carbide coating the artifact. Some good tricks for that: gradual transition from SiC to tetragonal-C/diamond crystal structure without a well-defined interface for the transition. Making the outer layers of the coating amorphous (glassy). Coatings would be useful to reduce the surface reactivity of the artifact, but are admittedly fussy in the context of a primitive artifact.

A sophisticated way to dull the shine of such a thing would be to have its surface to have precisely distributed and uniform roughness, e.g. a Gaussian distribution of pit depths and spacings, or maybe randomly spaced pits with internal step depths in a sequence representing the first 128 digits of π.

#32 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 12:19 PM:

Janice the atlatlist, thanks for the link. Now if I'm held captive in a bathroom I'll be able to fight back, as long as my captors don't catch me knapping.

Another how-to on that site gave me pause: How to Paint a Mammoth. "First, catch your mammoth..."

#33 ::: Paul Riddell ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 01:30 PM:


Thanks for the compliment, but I have to admit that I dabble. Admittedly, I have more time now that I've come to my senses and quit writing, but I'm waiting until better weather before I sit out on the back porch and start flipping chips everywhere. Right now, I'm spendng my time looking at newtech materials: a lot of people don't know that porcelain may be knapped as well, and that you can get a lot of blades and points off the top of an old toilet tank...

Anywhoo, it's something to keep me off the streets and out of trouble. Since I'm no longer in Florida (the job that got me to move out there went kerplunk two days before Christmas), I'm going back into palaeontology with a vengeance. Modesty prevents me from going into detail until I find definitive proof, but I'm going dinosaur hunting in West Texas this weekend on a search for a very fragmentary beast, and if the search succeeds, you'll know all about Ellisonosaurus harlani all too soon.

#34 ::: Janice ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 03:06 PM:

Bob Webber, you'd appreciate the motto of the World Atlatl Association:

"No longer will I hunt mammoth alone"

#35 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 07:24 PM:

There's another of Dad's abiding interests -- interesting old ways of throwing a projectile. I think it was back in the 70s that he got interested in atlatls (or hul-chees). Add to that his interest in rifles, muzzle-loaders, boomerangs, slingshots, crossbows, blowguns, and regular archery. I learned to use a sling from him as well, with decent accuracy, I must admit.

No doubt some of his taste for the outdoors was cultivated in his youth in east Texas, where hunting was something you do for food. There's a sort of survivalist strain in him that seems to hark back to rural poverty during the Depression. I suppose his woodworking skills might trace back to that as well, and to raising a family of six on a musician's salary -- it certainly helped to be able to make useful furniture for the house.

His present hobby is boats, which don't seem to fit in with the above. I expect he didn't get enough of messing about in boats as a youth. He's making up for it now.

Sure, he's relevant to this topic! His uncle used to make arrowheads. Sadly, those arrowheads are now gone (see my earlier post), but I used to think about them a lot, especially when we'd visit Aunt Blanche and Uncle Ney. The field across from their house was full of flint heads, especially just after it had been plowed. Those were the days.

#36 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 05:16 AM:

Teresa, you've just made me very happy. I'm in the early stages of a project writing about modern-day shapechangers, and I wanted to ring some fresh changes on modern primitivism. Now I'm all set. Thank you!

#37 ::: gerald Walters ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 05:08 AM:

Just read a comment on stone knives passing through security.I make stone knives with stone handles.I know each knife I make will not pass through security,simply because I put tin foil in each handle,when I glue the blade to the handle.

#38 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 04:09 PM:

Umm, gerald, that only guarantees that your knives won't get through security checkpoints manned by conscientious, competent personnel. The connection between such checkpoints and those that exist in our airports is pretty tenuous, I'm afraid.

#39 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 04:39 PM:

My Two Slowest Times Through Airport Security:

(1) I was a VIP speaker at a combined Aerospace Conference and SciFi Film Festival in Munch, Germany some years ago. Hung out with some MIR cosmonauts (who could drink Germans under the table!). Flying out of Munich, to London, I was aked the routine "do you have any items that you did not pack yourself?" Answered honestly.

"I do have this small package from some Russians..."

Guards with automatic weapons sprang from the woodwork. A LOONG time later, they verified that the box contained only chocolates.

(2) While waiting for an international flight out of JFK, my son and I started practicing karate katas. My son, Andrew, now a 14-year-old college sophomore, already had his Brown Belt in Gosoku-Ryu. We were searched, re-searched, and then some. Since I had, at the time, a 6-8 inch curly black beard, I imagine the report of profile-matching Middle Eastern Ninjas. I eventually shaved the beard -- kept getting searched thoroughly each time I entered a courthouse or Federal building, which got in the way of the part-time paralegal work I was doing, including filing briefs in Appeals and Supreme Court...

George R. R. Martin's significant other, Parris, was hassled by Airport Security for the Wiccan knife she carried. She waited until the whole mob of officers were there, then instructed them to check with her father, in the U.S. Senate...

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