Love by Ondol’s Light

Awwww. Burning charcoal makes him wistful.

Back in the day when serving in Korea the wife and I had to move out of one house heated by an ondol system, a series of heated pipes that run under the floors of a residence, due to carbon monoxide leaks. By regulations, U.S. service members living off the base were required to live in homes that had been upgraded to use heated water pipes in the floor instead of the more dangerous hot air systems that were notorious for leaking poison gas. One morning shortly after moving into our new apartment the wife and I woke up each of us with pounding headaches and nausea. After our IQ’s returned to normal we decided “We’re outta here.” We discovered the landlord had lied about what heating system he had installed, being greedy for rent money. We were lucky we woke up at all.

The ondol heating systems may be behind the Korean urban myth of “fan death” that remains a concern primarily through fear-mongering by the media. In the public panic over illness or death that may have been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning it was often blamed on fans “stealing the air” or dehydrating sleepers. Most fans, even those sold today, have a timer that shuts the device off not to save electricity but to prevent death. That a fan is in the room of a person allegedly affected by a “fan death” is incidental. The fan death myth is persistent and even the skeptical blame it on dehydration and suffocation using rather shaky science to support their beliefs. But more than likely fans are blamed because one happens to be present in the room of the elderly or ill. more likely explanation that death through natural causes or carbon monoxide is ignored in favor of the scary idea that death can strike anyone, anywhere caused by nothing more than a gentle breeze.

The remote possibility may be that if a fan was involved in a death or illness at all it could have been from disturbing carbon monoxide gas that had settled under the floors from leaking heating pipes. It is possible the gas may have been disturbed by moving air from a fan that caused it to swirl and rise up through the floor to the level of a sleeping person who, in traditional Korean homes slept on mats on the floor, could then have then been in direct contact with the gas. Any “fan death” reports that had a basis in fact would probably have come from the passing of elderly residents in older style homes heated by older ondol. It is unlikely the one or two deaths per year attributed to “fan death” occur in modern homes with safer heating systems and are probably due to natural causes.

Hat Trick

Solving ancient mysteries isn’t all that hard. When trying to answer the questions posed by ancient events and artifacts there are a few things that are important to consider outside of demonstrable facts to glean their true history when all that remains is speculation.

It has become something of a cliche that a discovery will be identified as being religious in nature. That may be true nonetheless for most things pertaining to the ancient world because religion (and the fear that comes with it) is a great method of crowd control. But busy-work building temples is a big-picture kind of thing and doesn’t fill every moment of the day. So how does one puzzle out the practical uses of less expansive ancient technology and artifacts of a culture?

One way to do this is think like an ancestor. Life was hard way back when. People scratched for sustenance and if they didn’t gather enough goods or trade enough services for food then they starved that evening. There were a lot of things about day to day life that just were not required for making it to the next sunrise so it was a great investment in time to do anything not absolutely goal-oriented towards survival.

So the one trait I speculate that was in wide use by ancient peoples was that of Common Sense. Our ancestors were not stupid. Far from it. They were capable of things that even the most advanced nation of today scratches their collective heads over. Often scholars can’t agree how spectacular ancient engineering feats were accomplished because modern tools can not duplicate exactly the same results. Tales of machines that seem far-fetched can not be recreated using tools of the day. So how did all these wondrous inventions lost to time become reality? By using a common sense approach to any project. Many seemingly impossible things were done simply because a can-do attitude was applied.

While the assertion that “thinking outside the box” may seem simplistic that leads to the next trait to be aware of and one that is necessary for the first to work successfully. That is to understand that People Are Bastards. Need to move heavy stones from one place to another? Throw people at them until it gets done. Want to keep the village busy between crop planting? Have them dig furrows in the earth creating pictures only the “Gods” can observe from on high. Strike fear in the populace to keep them under control? Parade a bunch of exotically-armed guards around as your retinue.

Some time ago I solved the riddle of the true use of the stone rings in an Aztec courtyard. The common misconception was that opposing teams kicked a ball through a small stone ring high on a wall. This is ridiculous. You can read why here, but suffice to say that any game played in that manner would be frustrating for both players and spectators alike. Foreign visitors reported the elaborate game of skill played by the locals though this was likely exaggerated to make the conquering army seem all the more formidable against the native population. After all, it wouldn’t do to have highly-skilled and technologically advanced soldiers wearing armor defeat a bunch of kids playing volleyball.

And so it is that I approach another mystery and solve it by applying Common Sense and never forgetting that People Are Bastards.

A few days ago one of the education-oriented cable channels was demonstrating the use of ancient weapons such as Greek Fire, spinning swords mounted on chariots as anti-personnel gear and the hand-held weapon with a terrifying reputation, the Flying Guillotine.

The Flying Guillotine is reportedly a martial arts device of which almost no records of it having actually existed other than some old descriptions. While many examples of ancient weapons of all kinds yet exist this most powerful, long-distance killer is strangely lost to the ages. Odd, considering that such a deadly device would most assuredly be coveted and protected and even mass-produced at some point if only because of its effectiveness over swords and other pointy objects of harm.

The Flying Guillotine is known most popularly through modern film and literature. Resembling a modern bee-keepers head gear, the Flying Guillotine is reportedly a hat-like device attached to a cord or chain. Thrown by an expert, the weapon settles over the head and the outer ring falls to the shoulders attached to and held in place by an upper plate, the two pieces connected by a mesh or bag. The lower ring contains blades which would close in a scissor effect when the cord was pulled, decapitating the victim and presumably, neatly holding the severed head in the net. According to legend, the Flying Guillotine was wielded to devastating effect by an elite posse of ninja guards. Popularly, it was supposed to have worked something like in the video below.

Though cool, that the weapon worked as effectively as the legend would have it is extremely unlikely. Modern replicas, even those made with materials that would enhance its effectiveness as a throwing weapon more often than not fail spectacularly. While ancient blades would assuredly been strong enough to sever limbs and decapitate a human it is also equally unlikely that the movement of a sharp knife in the space of few inches by yanking a cord or chain would have the desired effect of cleanly lopping off a head. It has also been theorized that since the usefulness of the Flying Guillotine as a throwing weapon is questionable it was used instead to ambush the unwary. The weapon would be dropped over the head of a victim who passed under a tree or arch. While this is more feasible it is yet not very plausible and attributes to ancient martial artists nigh-magical ninja skills that realistically did not exist and would be almost useless and impractical in a real-world situation. As the tool of an assassin the Flying Guillotine is ridiculously complex. It’s use as described in legend flies against all common sense and is not very practical. Why go to all that effort when it was far easier and economical to just sneak up on someone and hack at the neck with a long blade?

So while the Flying Guillotine could have been used as a murder device by ninja sorcerers it was more likely to be used as a method of control and punishment. This goes to the aspect of Common Sense. The Flying Guillotine would have been ridiculously superfluous in a culture of swords, clubs and knives. Also, factor in that People Are Bastards and the true use of the device is readily apparent.

Presumably expensive and time-consuming to create and rare enough that making one was strictly controlled by the wealthy and powerful it is more likely that the Flying Guillotine was an artifact that promoted fear among the populace. This is not to assert it was never put to use. it is rare that a weapon is created that is never used. It is the stories and tales of its deadly accuracy by an elite squad of guards that would ensure that anyone would think twice about attacking or disrespecting the Lord of the village. Instant and horrifying fear of death from afar is a great way to ensure someone with designs on the big chair doesn’t gain much support from his fellow disgruntled farmers. The thought that one could be killed at the drop of a hat from twenty feet distant before getting close enough to use a knife would make anyone think twice about rushing the palace.

As to its actual practical use it isn’t difficult to imagine that the Flying Guillotine was pressed into service on occasion on some poor person as an object lesson not to mess with the boss. Placed over the head, the victim could be paraded about in public, lead by a chain attached to the device he wore. It was spectacle. Anyone observing some poor fellow staggering about wearing the thing knew he was a dead man walking.

Once a good show was put on for the public the chain could be pulled causing the sharp blades on the interior collar to sink into the neck of the victim and sever the arteries, causing death by massive blood loss. Whether or not the blades would be sufficient to decapitate a person is up to debate as the force required would be more substantial than most people could muster in a single strike. Repeatedly yanking the chain while dragging a bleeding body about the village square, while horrifying, is not as effective as claiming the head was severed in one motion by a scary dangerous super ninja. Anyone disputing the official story of how the weapon worked would probably find themselves wearing one soon enough.

So it is more than likely that the actual Flying Guillotine, if it in fact existed, would have been used most effectively as a ceremonial weapon for propaganda and as a means of the occasional public execution.