Anyone who has been to Pompeii knows that the ancient Romans were accomplished graffiti writers. So were many other ancient humans, from the cave-dwellers forward. More and more, bits of ancient graffiti are being translated, and the results are classic — and often hysterical. The writings tell us something meaningful about our ancestors.
For example, how can you not smile about the unknown Greek guy who wrote, 1,500 years ago, “Sydromachos has an ass as big as a cistern.” Who today hasn’t felt a similar urgent need to point out the reality of an acquaintance’s enormous rump? It reminds me of a co-worker who, years ago, saw a newly hired employee who formerly had been an intern and who, in the intervening period, has put on a few pounds in the posterior. With perfect timing, the co-worker scrutinized the colossal keister, turned to a friend, and said in an awed voice: “That’s not the ass we hired.”
The ancient graffiti writings confirm that there is something basic and immutable about the human condition that remains lurking below — temporarily hidden, perhaps, by the trappings of civilization and technology, but always ready to appear at an opportune moment. It’s reasonable to conclude that, for so long as human beings survive as a species, a big butt is always going to be worthy of a wry comment.
Just when you think we’ve reached the nadir in the arc of human social development, you read a story about “toilet gaming” — and you realize there are entirely new depths waiting to be plumbed by modern homo sapiens.
You read it right: “toilet gaming.” Or, to be precise, urinal gaming. Apparently modern men simply can’t abide the 50 seconds or so of down time that usually accompanies the basic human function of bladder evacuation. It’s just so damn tedious, standing there on the sticky floor of a public restroom, staring at the wall a few inches ahead while you answer nature’s call! So, some enterprising British business has developed devices that allow the bored urinal user to play a video game that uses urine flow as a kind of hands-free joystick. A good aim at inner urinal sensors that hits various targets allows you to get a top score in a skiing game or to correctly answer trivia questions, and your score shows up on a video screen directly ahead. The developers think they’ll be able to sell advertising — presumably, for beer — on part of the video screen.
Have we really reached the point where men can’t even relieve themselves without playing a video game? Can’t public restrooms just be devoted exclusively to their intended purpose? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the guy using the next urinal over to be focused on directing the stream in order to score well on a video game rather than paying careful attention to successful and prompt completion of the task at hand.
The Occupy Wall Street protests continue to teach us useful lessons about how civilization works and how individuals react in different social situations.
The latest story is of the revolt of the OWS kitchen staff. They have been slaving over a hot stove — or whatever they use for cooking — for 18-hour days, turning out high-end grub. They serve things like organic chicken and vegetables, spaghetti bolognese, and sheep’s milk cheese and roasted beet salad. Now they’re ticked because they believe “professional homeless” people, ex-cons, and other freeloaders are showing up at Zuccotti Park, eating the free food and otherwise acting as leeches on the buttocks of the “movement.” So the kitchen staff protested by not serving food and then providing only low-end food like brown rice and PB and J sandwiches. And in other developments, a 10-person volunteer security force patrolled the “trouble-prone southwest section” of Zuccotti Park in a “show of force” to clear out the rabble.
It’s like that Sim City game that Richard played years ago. The OWS protesters were the “have-nots” until they became the “haves” — and then other “have-nots” showed up to try to get theirs. So, the budding OWS civilization has to police who gets the chow and set up a security force to keep order. If they don’t budget carefully and devote some of their energy and resources to security and preservation of property, their civilization will fail.
How long do you think it will be before the “professional homeless” launch an Occupy “Occupy Wall Street” protest?
Today I’m holding my breath about getting to work, because yesterday’s morning drive caused me to realize, once again, that many of my fellow commuters are dangerous lunatics.
Sometime early yesterday a tanker truck overturned near the intersection of Route 161 and I-270, two of the major roads in Columbus. Both highways were closed in both directions for the entire morning rush hour. As a result, thousands of cars that normally use those arteries had to find alternative routes, and the entire east side of Columbus quickly became a paralyzed mass of red-faced, frustrated drivers. Every road heading in the direction of downtown was filled with cars inching along, bumper to bumper, going nowhere.
It’s amazing how quickly the veneer of civilization is ripped away when this kind of thing happens. After a few minutes of delay and the horrifying sight of long lines of stationary cars, drivers get the sinking feeling that this is going to be bad — and then the inner savage appears. Selfish drivers blithely block intersections as traffic lights change, infuriating everyone trying to get through the crossing. Drivers recklessly weave in and out, change lanes to move forward a single car length, and abruptly make illegal U-turns. Some people will drive on the berm, and other self-nominated traffic code enforcers try to block them from doing so.
You look at the well-dressed people in the stopped cars around you, gesturing angrily or beating their hands against the steering wheel, and you wonder whether they shouldn’t be wearing face paint and bearskins.
Today, after I woke up and got out of bed, and as I dragged my comb across my head, I thought briefly of the humble comb.
An early Egyptian comb
The earliest tools made by human ancestors go back hundreds of thousands of years. Not surprisingly, they seem to be things likes axe heads, knives, and other implements that help with hunting, killing, and skinning animals; you would expect the struggling early humans to focus on getting food and making it edible.
Combs, however, are distinctly different. They aren’t essential to survival and seem to be a product of a more advanced civilization, where people were more attentive to their appearance and had the leisure time to do something about it. Perhaps they gazed into a pool of water, considered their reflection, and thought: “My hair looks like crap!” They dragged their fingers through their hair and noticed a slight improvement, and then they realized that just as tools helped with the killing and gutting of prey, so tools could help to make their hair look better. After some experimentation, the basic design of the comb — with its rows of tines working to tame and untangle unruly hair — was devised.
Ancient combs from Qumran
I don’t think archaeologists know exactly when combs were first invented. I’ve seen combs from ancient Egypt that were created more than 5000 years ago, and combs apparently spread around the world after the first century B.C. The combs shown on these links look pretty similar to the combs available today. Substitute antler bone, ivory, or hard wood for plastic, and there’s really not much difference. The basic design of the comb therefore seems to have pretty much stayed unchanged for 7,000 years. Is there any other man-made tool or device that has been used, continuously and without material change, for as long as the humble comb?
An artist's depiction of "Inuk"
A study of 4,000-year-old remains has allowed scientists to sequence the genome of an individual trapped in the permafrost of Greenland. From the remains and the genome sequencing, scientists have been able to determine that the man — called “Inuk,” which means “human” in the language of Greenland natives — likely was prone to baldness, had “shovel-shaped” front teeth, and had “dry earwax.” Other than that, he undoubtedly would have been quite the stud at his tribe’s seal-slaughter festival.
What is interesting about this discovery is not that scientists have been able to make such determinations from 4,000-year-old remains, but rather that at the same time “Inuk” was noshing on seal blubber and huddled in a small dark tent, freezing and suffering through the endless winter nights, the Egyptian civilization was flowering thousands of miles away. At about the same time Inuk met his maker in the Greenland permafrost, Cheops was erecting the Great Pyramid that continues to astonish modern tourists, and his contemporaries were establishing the literature and culture that marked one of the high points of Egyptian civilization.
What made humans develop relatively advanced civilizations in some areas, while in others they continued to live in primitive tribal conditions? Of such questions is science made.