Built to Last

A few days ago, I came upon a technique for preparing chicken. It was a fairly simple thing, butterflying chicken filets, and I hadn’t even been looking up how to do that (I don’t know what I had in my search term anymore, but it definitely contained the word ‘butterfly’). There were a few images. Cut open the filet, open it, cover it with cling wrap and then pummel until tender. No big deal, as meat preparation goes.

And yet, the final image caught my eye.

Butterflying chicken.
Source: BBC Good Food

And I wondered: Why the cling wrap between the meat and the tenderizing roller?

This is a process that takes a few short minutes. Sure, the roller stays clean and the chicken meat perhaps a bit more shapely if cling wrap is used.

Consider this: That strip of cling wrap is only used for a few short minutes before being thrown away (and quickly, because it is covered in chicken remains and within a few hours can potentially infect anything it comes into contact with). Yet it will go on to have a life-span of anywhere from ten years to a few decades, depending on how it is disposed of. Unless it’s incinerated, in which case it might release toxic gases.

All that for a few minutes of use, in a process for which it’s not even necessary. If it’s keeping the roller clean that matters, well…wash the roller afterwards. It worked for centuries, it can work today.

When I was a teenager and deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up (not realizing I would ever fully do either of those things), I considered a future in archeaology, the science of looking back. A friend invited me along on an archeaological dig along the California coast that was part research, part salvage mission.

The remains of a Pomo village located an eroding cliff above a beach in Humboldt county were crumbling, year for year, onto the sand below and being washed away by the Pacific tides. At least, I remember it being a Pomo village. Or Miwok. We found a lot of palm-sized notched stones, sinker stones used for weighting fishing nets, basket remains, net fragments. Much had already been reclaimed by the land and sea.

Sinker stones, Colombia River.
Source: Homestyle/Arrowheadology

One afternoon, I was sifting beach sand through a large sieve. What remained in the sieve was usually large bits of shells, rocks, seaweed. I remember very little plastic. This was in the mid-1970s, so I imagine there was plastic, but it didn’t stand out. What did stand out was a shiny shard of red obsidian, a stone that wasn’t otherwise found in that area. As it turned out, that little shard provided a sliver of proof that this village had traded with tribes to the east of California.

Everything we found had a utility, and we could trace it back to that specific utility. A tiny piece of beach-buried obsidian told us a story.

Now, consider this, a video by Sustainable Coasts Hawaii of another sand-sifting moment, decades and thousands of miles away from my own. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to be exact. Look what gets left behind in the sieve.

The vast majority of those plastic shards are now unrecognizable. They’ve degraded but not into something that can be considered safe – on the contrary, they are both useless and dangerous to sea and land animals. It’s safe to say that most of the plastic likely came from items that had a brief life in terms of usefulness for humans. Deodorant containers. Straws. Plastic plates or forks. Processed food packaging. Oh, all the one-use packaging. The stuff we use to carry other stuff once, maybe twice, then throw away so it can continue a life unseen, slowly falling apart, outliving all of us.

We build obsolescence into the things we need to last, like big appliances and phones, and build the disposable items as if we’ll need them forever.

Consider what we learned from a couple of weeks about a village by sifting along a beach and looking at what they left behind.

What will the world know of us, hundreds of years from now, when our plastic is still filling the world’s beaches?


*If, maybe in honor of Earth Day on April 22, you decide to make the move away from cling wrap, here’s a video on how to make a substitute. And before we lose a tear about the convenience of disposable plastic to our daily lives, think about how, once made, we never really get rid of plastic, and how inconvenient that is.

Hard Data

When I was a teenager, I went on an archeaological dig for a week or so. It was an enlightening experience, and not just because it made me realize how much I don’t like camping in the rain, even on a California beach.

One fascinating aspect of the dig was the discovery of various artifacts that were clearly intact, but which were for unknown uses.

eyelets_grommets_shoe_eyeletOf course, a small part of an object –  the metal eyelet of a laced shoe, for example – might have any number of uses once it has been separated from its parent object.  At the time it had never occurred to me that humans could invent objects of everyday use, and that we could then collectively forget what they were for, or not intuitively understand their function.

Clay balls found at various sites across what was ancient Mesopotamia are thought to represent the first data storage and communication system in the era that preceded the invention of writing. Called ‘envelopes’, the balls range in age from 3000-5500 years old, and can be anywhere from the size of a golf ball to that of a baseball.

Photo: Anna Ressman/ Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Photo: Anna Ressman/ Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

The envelopes have specific markings on the outside, and contain small geometrical objects, dubbed ‘tokens’, within. High-resolution computer tomography scanning has been used to examine the interiors without breaking open the clay exteriors.

Researchers suggest that the tokens represent some form of counting, while the outer markings denote buyer and seller information. Overall, the envelopes and their contents were probably a way to record economic transactions, a kind of prehistoric receipt.

Credit: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Line drawing of clay ball exterior
Credit: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

There’s a part of me that thinks modern humans haven’t really changed all that much from the time we became sedentary city dwellers carrying out business.

How simple would the creators of these handy and long-lasting clay balls, likely considered intuitive and easy to use, consider the 21st century person who couldn’t easily figure them out?

What objects of data storage do I consider to be intuitive and functional, but which will one day present a strange and intriguing puzzle because some amount of cultural information has gone missing or is obsolete?datastorage