Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gecko's Feet, Redux

John Stevens sent me this fabulous video he took of a gecko moving its foot, after reading my old post on gecko feet. Please note the backwards arrangement of its joints, so that the gecko can change the angle that the setae (the tiny hairs on their foot) touch the surface with, helping to shift the way the Van der Waal's force holds them there, and thus peel their foot away. John actually posted it on YouTube at my request -- many thanks!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Quick Links: Coraline Boxes and the Antikythera Mechanism Reborn

In case you hadn't noticed, I don't always pay attention to publicity campaigns; so it was quite by accident that I came across two references to the movie being made of Neil Gaiman's chilling story Coraline, being made entirely by hand by an apparently very talented crew at LAIKA, an animation studio in Portland.

I had seen clips of the film and heard about it a little from Mr. Gaiman's own lips when he came to read on his recent journeys; but, well, as for publicity... I'm just dyslexic about things like that.

So I was very taken with the Coraline website's focus on things being made with peoples' hands, and the little vignettes of different people doing different tiny but important jobs made me very happy. So often you get someone working at Pixar or someplace whose whole world, for awhile, is to make fur moving in moonlight; but you never actually meet these people. It is nice to see the folks making this incredible stuff - in fact, it's nice to see people making, period. It gives me hope and joy. I can't help but think it must make Mr. Gaiman feel extraordinary, to be the spark at the beginning of such a creative fuse.

You can see "all the clips, trailers, and behind-the-scenes featurettes" at the official Coraline YouTube site (thanks to everyone who has helped me out on this).

On top of this, of course, there is the furor (a total unknown to me until yesterday) about the boxes which the crew of Coraline are putting together and sending to their favorite bloggers. These are real, actual boxes with real, actual stuff in them, being sent via snailmail. So, what we have is a crew of people who work with their hands sending love-letters of a very visceral sort to people whose work they access virtually; and the bloggers then turn around and blog about the boxes, creating viral publicity in a virtual medium about a movie which is all about being made by hand. I find this whole thing absolutely fascinating, because it underlines a point I've been trying to get my head around in the paper I've been writing: that certain blogs are about accessing a sort of truthful physicality which one might not be able to experience in the real world. It's away to access authenticness.

Like in the old age of Wunderkammern, explorers and adventurers went out into unknown parts and came back carrying artifacts from the places they'd been. These artifacts would find their way into the hands of collectors, who put them all together, showcasing their extraordinariness and trying to deconstruct what they were about.

Now there are bloggers, such as D and M, over at Curious Expeditions, who go out into the world and bring back oddities and wonders to their fellow bloggers, who collect their artifacts (pictures and words) so that others may see them and wonder. Some bloggers are more interested in made things, ideas, or ways of living; but they work to bring those realities to those of us who can't experience the things in context, and make our lives richer.

So it's a very interesting thing to see someone literally playing with this metaphor, sending physical, Wunderkammer-like artifacts to virtual Wunderkammer-makers. Who then turn them virtual in order to display them. A mobius strip of wonder, if you like.

My only question is - are they enclosing actual bits and pieces from the film-making process? Because that would take it to a sort of metalayer of mobius-ness.

The other thing I've come across just today [via Slashdot] is a nice article on a man who has now managed to recreate the Antikythera Mechanism more accurately than his previous attempt:

"The added details and precision of the new model are based on the breakthrough research by the The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, a joint effort by researchers from Greece and the United Kingdom. They were able to plumb the depths of the device, comprised of 81 separate pieces (including several fused together over time), and decipher many more of the inscriptions by using high-tech hardware and software..." [find out more about this, and the hardware and software, here].

In other words, all the things we've been hearing for several years now, about new systems for seeing inside the mechanism, have been paying off splendidly in - you guessed it - physical form. Hooray! We get to see it in action!

You can also see a 2006 slideshow of the researchers actually using the equipment here, if you feel so inclined.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Goodbye, Oliver Postgate

Oh, oh.

Oliver Postgate, the creator of Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, the Clangers, and Bagpuss, among other television characters, has died.

The Clangers shared their hollow planet with the Soup Dragon (pictured right), while the Iron Chicken - modelled from Meccano [aka Erector Set] - lived in an orbiting nest made of scrap metal.

I'm a late believer, but have since come to appreciate the little singing mice in Bagpuss - and was really a goner once I had read the whole set of Noggin the Nog books to my elder daughter.

Here's a snip from his obituary in the Guardian:

"In 1957-58 he joined one of the new commercial television companies as a stage manager. But it was when he was assigned to children's programmes that Postgate was drawn to his true niche in life. He thought the youngsters were getting a penny-pinching deal, especially in the matter of storytelling.

"Marionettes on strings or glove puppets were all very well, but to keep pace with expanding young imaginations, he felt that fully animated cartoons or puppet dramas were needed. And these were far too expensive for everyday use.

"With an artist friend, Peter Firmin, he set up an independent production outfit called Smallfilms to see if they could turn out affordable animation. Their studio was a cowshed (later replaced by a row of converted pigsties) on Firmin's farm near Canterbury, in Kent. Postgate dreamed up the characters and stories and taught himself the laborious skills of frame-by-frame animation.

"Firmin drew the pictures or designed the sets and made the models when they switched to puppetry. The bassoonist Vernon Elliott came in to furnish the music. They began with a 10-minute cartoon series, The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959), in which a stolid young Viking prince was up against an evil uncle and various Nordic monsters. By eliminating most overheads and taking little reward for themselves, Postgate and company were able to turn them out for a 10th of the going rate. They sold the series to the BBC."

It's a reminder of all the people who continue to try to make the world better, at little gain for themselves - who want to make people happy. I applaud them, and I applaud Mr. Postgate.

There is apparently still a pretty good DVD business for his odd little shows. Children love them, and they are just weird enough to appeal to adults, too. Check out the Dragons' Friendly Society, the center of all Noggin the Nog creativity and a nice example of good self-publishing working well.

More pictures of Mr. Postgate and his creations here.

PS. If you are interested in ordering Noggin the Nog stuff (or the DVDs of Bagpuss, etc) from within the US or other non-British countries, go here to their online eBay distributors, who will take actual plastic. The DFS themselves only take cheques.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

...With Fairy Tales For All

Edmund Dulac - my favorite illustrator

I am, without remorse, a deep believer in, and collector of, fairy tales. In my life I have read hundreds, perhaps thousands; and they never cease to fascinate me, because they all intersect. Russian tales intersect with European tales and even Arab tales; Northern European tales migrate oddly down to Southern Europe. Details travel. There are any number of fairy tale themes that seem to show up in all different places: the stepmother, the witch, the son seeking his fortune, to name some obvious ones - but then there are the less obvious, still ubiquitous ones: the things thrown over one's shoulder to thwart a pursuer; the pursued transforming into something (eg. grain of wheat) which the pursuer then transforms to destroy (eg. hen); the place beyond the sun or the worlds' end or at the back of the ocean.

In any case, I seem to have put far too much money into fairy tale collections in my lifetime, and it occurred to me today that I could, in fact, blog about different collections in the interest of, well, interest - and possibly as an understated list for possible Christmas-like perusal. So, without further ado, here we go - the best as I know it.

First of all, let me plug Andrew Lang's Coloured Fairy Books. There are twelve of them, from green to red to lilac and violet and so on, and they are really classic. Though Lang wrote for a living, these were not written by him but edited - by which really we mean collected from other, often foreign, texts and sources - by him, and translated by several other people, most notably his wife, who had a far greater influence on the style of translation and (proof)editing than she was ever given credit for.

They are beautifully illustrated in period style by H. J. Ford, who is reminiscent of Arthur Rackham or Frederick Richardson. Lang is famous for despising Victorian attempts at fairy-tale writing:

"But the three hundred and sixty-five authors who try to write new fairy tales are very tiresome. They always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and apple blossoms: 'Flowers and fruits, and other winged things.' These fairies try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed. Real fairies never preach or talk slang. At the end, the little boy or girl wakes up and finds that he has been dreaming.

"Such are the new fairy stories. May we be preserved from all the sort of them!"

Despite Lang's sentiments on the matter of "new" authors, another favorite tome of mine is Hauff's Fairy Tales, now tragically out of print. These are some of the most wonderful and imaginative stories, told in a wandering style that encompasses, in some cases, an Arabic style of telling, while in others, a Black Forest location. The stories are long and complex and totally entertaining; it's hard to explain why they are so enjoyable, except that they have a lighthearted touch that seems to simply emanate from a joyfulness in the art of storytelling.

Wilhelm Hauff, a German of good family who was apparently largely self-taught from his grandfather's library, started writing these amazing tales from his own imagination when he was 22, and wrote prolifically for three years before his death of fever in 1827. He also wrote several novels, which I have not read or even seen in print (though his Memoirs of Beelzebub strikes me as intriguing).

And on the subject of someone sitting down and writing a fairy tale collection, let me say right now that I have almost never read any fairy tales as entertaining as ex-Python Terry Jones' Fairy Tales and Fantastic Stories. They manage to do a wonderful job with all the fairy tale elements, while somehow being terribly modern in their appeal - and have a wonderfully silly twist, as you would expect from their author. Just let me quote The Silly King, about a king who, with age, has become extremely eccentric:

"Nobody, however, liked to mention how silly their king had become. Even when he hung from the spire of the great cathedral, dressed as a parsnip and throwing Turkish dictionaries at the crowd below."

Of course, when the Princess (whom he named Fishy - although everyone calls her Bonito) has a suitor, the Lord Chancellor must find a way to make him acceptable to the suitor's father, who has come to arrange the marriage. A call is put out and numerous doctors provide numerous solutions:

"One eminent doctor had a lotion which he said King Herbert must rub on his head before going to bed, but King Herbert drank it all on the first night, and was very ill. So a second eminent doctor produced a powder to cure the illness caused by the first doctor, but King Herbert put a match to it, whereupon it exploded and blew his eyebrows off. So a third doctor produced a cream to replace missing eyebrows, but King Herbert put it on his teeth and they all turned bright green overnight."

Needless to say, I highly recommend this collection, especially for reading aloud.

Andrew Lang also did an abridged collection of Arabian tales called The Arabian Nights Entertainments, published (with more wonderful Ford illustrations) by Dover, as all the Lang books are. It's beautiful to look at and a great read for all ages. Less good for children, but a fascinating read, is The Book of The Thousand Nights and One Night, translated by J. C. Mardrus and Powys Mathers. This version is a relatively faithful translation of the original, complete with sort-of salacious bits, sexism, racism, and other biases of the original. It's a revealing peek into social politics in another place and time - and good stories, to boot.

If you're wanting the salacious bits pumped up a little, you should be looking for the Thousand Nights and One Night, by Richard Francis Burton, the gadabout adventurer who traveled in disguise to Mecca and was in the first trip by Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the Nile. He worked for the East India Company and, later, the Royal Geographical Society as an explorer. And, apparently, he he liked unexpurgated books (he also did a translation of the Kama Sutra).

I heard about this version of the Arabian Nights first from something (I forget what) written by Diana Wynne Jones. As it happens, she also has edited a volume of (other people's) fantasy stories, called Spellbound; wherein one chapter is taken from a book called Hobberty Dick, written by distinguished folklorist and literary historian Katherine Briggs. Just the one chapter, though, was enough to really turn my head, because the world she describes, in 1652, is one of people living under siege from the fantastic folk populating the world all around them. I never before thought about what it might be like to look out from a position of extreme superstition, where everything must be done according to rules, and in every corner of the world are spirits who may or may not be friendly - or who might turn hostile at any moment for the slightest and most whimsical reasons. So, even though this is not really a collection, I would recommend it as being unusual and interesting.

In more specific arenas, we can refine by country and subject matter.

I have always loved my copy of French Fairy Tales (the one published in 1971 by the Hamlyn Publishing Group). The stories smack deliciously of peasant tales, being all about magic things which provide food and money, or stories of outwitting the Devil - rather than the usual Perault stories like Puss in Boots and Beauty and the Beast. Hamlyn also did an English Fairy Tales, which is similar, containing such lesser known stories as Molly Whipple and The Princess and the Hazelnuts. Both of these are illustrated wonderfully by Ota Janecek. I really cannot say how interesting it is to see stories that have the true flavor of the working people in them; most fairy tales have the quality of having been handed around and polished so much that any sense of the dreams and desires of the people from whom they came have been worn away a little. These, however, reflect a certain hungry gusto which I find refreshing.

Apparently, Hamlyn Publishing Group (as in Paul Hamlyn, who was later awarded the BCE for his publishing efforts and philanthropy) also did a Chinese Fairy Tales and a Persian Fairy Tales, which both sound fascinating. I am much saddened to see that I can't recommend a place to find any of these books except the English Fairy Tales (which you can find on Amazon used), but perhaps you will have better luck.

A small but worthwhile volume is Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales, a compendium of stories about heroines: "Active, witty, brave and resourceful, these fair maidens can fight and hunt as well as any man, defeat giants, answer riddles, outwit the Devil, and rescure friends and relatives from all sorts of dangers and evil spells."

The illustrations by Margo Tomes are delicate and sometimes a little creepy, and if like me you wish there were more kick-ass fairy tale girls in the world, this is a book for you.

Another couple of small volumes are The Devil's Storybook and The Devil's Other Storybook, both by Natalie Babbit, are short, funny stories about the Devil trying to find ways to increase the population of his realm. The Devil in these books is a trickster and a cheat, always getting bored and restless and coming up to our world to see what kind of mischief he can stir up. They are comic and full of earthy gusto (but still suitable for kids):

"ONE DAY when things were dull in Hell, the Devil fished around in his bag of disguises, dressed himself as a fairy godmother, and came up into the World to find someone to bother."

They're simple, but I like them.

Lastly, I am sad to say the Journal of Mythic Arts, the voice of the Endicott Studio, "a nonprofit organization dedicated to literary, visual, and performance arts inspired by myth, folklore, fairy tales, and the oral storytelling tradition," has closed. This journal, and its attendant blog, was a great resource for all things literary and folkloric, and a place to see really worthwhile art as well. It will be mourned, but the archives remain online. You can read about it here (though I notice a picture by one of my own faves, Rima Staines, showcased on the Last Issue page, in the link above).

Other Links:

Artsy Craftsy has a wonderful selection of art prints, ecards and so on with images by Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Aubrey Beardsley, Kay Nielsen, and others. Truly worth looking at...Especially Dulac, of course; but also check out John Bauer, another fabulous illustrator.

Lisa Falzon has an interesting, introspective article here about illustrators John Bauer and Kay Nielsen and their influence on her imagination and her drawing.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Unready Reading Room

I was looking for images for a project and came across this amazing image drawn by Muirhead Bone, a Scottish artist from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a picture of the British Museum Reading Room, under construction. It's a little confusing, because the drawing is listed as being done in 1907, but the Reading Room is listed as being in use since 1897. Go figure.

Just in case you're wondering what it looks like now, here's a recent image:

It's always stunning to me to get a glimpse into how these spaces were built. They appear so sublime - and yet, someone had to work to make them that way. In fact, if you want to humanize it a little, know this: the ceiling surface is a type of papier-mâché.

I'll throw in these other pictures of the British Museum (below) for extra fun. I love looking at old pictures of familiar places.

Making a Manga Out of Life

My friend Gwyan sent me this link to Chris Scarborough's photography [click on "photography"] wherein he takes a picture of a real girl and then uses digital means to push her features closer to those of a manga (or anime) character. The result is quite startling.

I decided, for the purposes of the Media Literacy class I teach to 6th-graders, to make one of myself. In the body image section of the class, we explore how the media retouches all the images we see of people so that they are closer to the ideal set by the industry. Then I teach the kids how to use Photoshop, and they retouch their own image.

Maybe I've spoken of this before, but it's very interesting to me how the kids never try to turn themselves into a perfect and glamorous version of themselves. They always want to be aliens, or elves, or make themselves older, a different color, or even change gender. In any case, my hope is that they come away from the class with an insider's awareness of what is being done to all the images they are being presented with - and, as such, learn to take it all with a grain of salt, maybe even learn to dissect it a little. A lot of the ills of youth are based in the feeling that we can't possibly live up to expectation, and I feel the media is not helping this. So this is just my little bit of work toward fixing the problem.

In any case, it's so interesting to see oneself transformed into an idealized version of oneself. I am torn between horror at the result and a strange feeling that this is what I'm supposed to look like. I must be reading too many comics...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Hindu Dieties for Christmas

I had a few hours to myself in San Francisco the other day (a wonder in itself), and I happened across The Little Book of Hindu Dieties, a remarkable book in that it seems to conflate Shiva, Vishnu and the rest with the Power Puff Girls. I was extremely taken with the image of Kali, so cute! And yet with the severed-arm skirt and the head in her hand...

The Little Book is the product of Pixar's Sanjay Patel, working via his gheehappy site, where you can get books, prints and clothes with the images on them. I really wished I could get a t-shirt of the Kali in the book, but alas, kids' sizes only (these links here don't work but a fix is promised). The links page is of some interest, too.

Then I found that, of course, bOINGbOING had already showcased GheeHappy, including a plush Kali doll made by a friend of Patel's:

It was tempting to buy the book, given that my kids are big on Hindu mythology comic books, which tell the gazillion tales about the panoply of Hindu gods. My elder daughter used to even talk with strangers about "severe penances," which she learned about while reading the story of Parvati. That was always interesting to try to explain; lots of sidelong looks. The comics can be a great teaching tool, and very entertaining (though you may have to suffer the odd looks if your kids take them to heart). You can get hindu comics here, if you're interested.

In any case, this made me think about going to check out what's been happening with Nina Paley, who created Sita Sings the Blues, an indescribably fabulous set of animations which, last I saw, were just that: a series of wonderful shorts from the Ramayana which she was hoping to parlay into a feature film. Now I find she has done just that, to my intense joy - but guess what? They moved the copyright year back again. She is having trouble with rights for the songs.
[editor's note: This is what happens when you try to get a blog post out in very little time after not sleeping enough. I need to check my sources! I am still trying to "rediscover" the source where I found out about this... More soon. In the meantime, it looks like there will be a big fight in 2018 when they try to extend again.]

I have to say, copyright is a tricky business - and I do mean business. Every time it looks like Disney's oldest character, namely one Mickey Mouse, is about to go out of copyright, our obliging (but certainly not corrupt; never that) government takes it into their heads to extend the date when things go out of copyright. Why is this? No one knows. Surely it couldn't have anything to do with the fact that Disney is so fabulously rich, that they can afford the most expensive lawyers to slap down independent artists and perhaps to lobby continuously about the copyright thing. No, there must be another reason.

I'm waxing sarcastic. Unlike me to be annoyed at something like this, but I have friends who have been on the wrong end of a Disney lawsuit. And I do keep hoping they'll lose the copyright one of these days. Everyone else has, throughout the history of copyright. It's supposed to be fair, right?

In Nina Paley's case, she built the shorts around songs which were due to go out of copyright, and then the dates moved were out of copyright, but then found she had to pay for synch rights - and of course, the person or corporation who held those rights is now asking far more than any individual could possibly pay. So theoretically she could be up as a felony criminal for using them without permission. Sigh. So it might never be released.

I despair at the fact that this fab-o movie came to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago but I missed it. The trailers look marvelous. Go check it out, and keep an ear to the ground about the copyright thing; Ms. Paley has a blog, a very smart and somewhat disillusioned chronicle of neat stuff. It's a crying shame it can't be released. The movie has won more awards than I've seen attached to a single animated work before. Stunning.

Here's the trailer, in case you wanted to see it:

Update: go see what Roger Ebert has to say about the movie!

Sunday, November 23, 2008


I wrote a whole post, very long and researched, yesterday. Took in excess of 4 hours. Then the Autosave feature managed to help it disappear, all but the last two paragraphs.

I'm a little disheartened, but I'm going to recreate the post in the next day or two. Sorry for the delay... just have to get over the shock. And I do wish Blogger's help section was less depressing.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Blogs as Wunderkammern

I'm writing an actual academic paper which I will be presenting in February to the College Art Association's national meeting, about Blogs as Wunderkammern. I will be discuss the ways in which blogs emulate the same kind of exploration/bringing back oddities/presentation as the old Wunderkammern. The similarities go right through, including the re-emergence of systems of personal taxonomies defining the order of the collection, and the blossoming culture of exploration and idea-making.

With, of course, a modern twist. One of the things I find fascinating about this idea is the way that the vision of a Wunderkammer has become such a conceptual one; people seem to feel that it applies to all kinds of things. And, of course, blogging being a virtual medium, it follows that it should be a conceptual home-base of sorts.

I'm in the thick of trying to construct this paper, written of course in serious ArtSpeak, and it's really hard to wrap my head around the blog at the same time, though I keep taking rushes at a post on calculation through history. You'd think I could do it, given that the paper only has to be some 2,200 words long; but it's surprisingly difficult (especially given the way I seem to need to be dragged kicking and screaming to the keyboard). But no, my brain is curiously slow this month. However, I'll put the abstract below, and you can see what you think. Don't mind the language!

Though I think I've got a good handle on the paper, I'd welcome your thoughts on the topic. How is a blog like a Wunderkammer?

Abstract for Blogging as Wunderkammer:
Finding Authentic-ness in Virtual Collections and Personal Taxonomies

The contemporary perception of Wunderkammern has little to do with the ostentatious acquisition which drove the rich collectors who assembled them during the era of exploration and idea-making of the 16th and 17th centuries. At its most specific and physical, our contemporary vision is based on the aged and fragile remnants of the old Wunderkammern, which appear to us intimate, tactile and many-layered, with apparently whimsical taxonomies which depended on the personal world-view of the collector - very different from the sublime and overawing superstructure of the museums which they later became. In a broader sense, though, this image of the original Wunderkammer has become a metaphor for authenticness and a sense of wonder: something which lasts through history, full of mysterious meaning, presented in the intimacy of one’s home. And as a metaphor, it is appropriate that it be found in a metaphorical medium.

Blogging, more than any cultural technology, allows for an approach to wonder in an intimate and often apparently whimsical environment: bloggers present a collection of images, ideas, and objects in a style and order specific to his or her own vision: a personal taxonomy. The software encourages the collection to be accessed according to flexible parameters, allowing movement through different kinds of “rooms”, depending on the viewer’s interests.

Additionally, the blogging format invites blog collections to intermingle transparently: people can “add” to their catalog of items through blogrolls, blog memes, and, especially, polite appropriation: as blogs work with one another, greater Wunderkammern are created. A slow collapse in the authority of centralized taxonomies and top-down culture-making has left an opening for the re-emergence of personal taxonomies in a different era of exploration and the connection of ideas. Steampunk and Clockpunk are lively examples of subcultures that ignore the mass-market paradigm; participants are often as satisfied with virtual images of “real” things as they are with actually owning them, which appears to be less important than the idea of its perceived authenticness - unlike the original Wunderkammern, for which ownership was paramount, and authenticity secondary. The viewer is no longer simply an onlooker to another person’s riches, but a participant, invited not just to move through intimate collection-spaces in the same way people were invited to wander through the Wunderkammern of old, but to take from it and build their own.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Sigh of Relief

For the very first time in my life, I am proud to be American. Seriously.

It's a weird feeling. I feel part of something big.

Mostly, though, the wordless weight of millions of disillusioned souls have stopped rubbing, rubbing, rubbing at the national psyche. Now the voices have spoken, millions upon millions of them: the polling places didn't know what to do with the numbers; our system is set up for so much of the country to go unheard. And with this one gigantic moment of speech, of the exercise of choice, we are free. We get to choose who we are.

An exhalation of hope on a national - no, international - scale.

And with that voice, we say we believe in each other. We say we are, indeed, one people.

The sense of space is limitless; the sense of silence, and peace, and relief, immense. Like Maya Angelou said, "Even my hairs are happy."

(And ZeFrank, oh wonderous and silly man, has a great way to celebrate).

Saturday, November 1, 2008

It's All So Distracting

In honor of my inability to accomplish anything at all during these last few weeks of the election, I'm going to talk a little about people who are distracted. I feel like I'm holding my breath and trying not to be sick at the same time. And I keep dropping the many balls I normally keep in the air.

So - here are some famous examples of people who have been as I have been, these last few days.

There is the story in Struwwelpeter about Hans Look-in-the-Air:

"Once, with head as high as ever,
Johnny walked beside the river.
Johnny watched the swallows trying
Which was cleverest at flying.
Oh! what fun!
Johnny watched the bright round sun
Going in and coming out;
This was all he thought about.
So he strode on, only think!
To the river's very brink,
Where the bank was high and steep,
And the water very deep;
And the fishes, in a row,
Stared to see him coming so."

This is just one bit of a longer poem, but you can see the rest at Project Gutenberg.

Note: these stories are very funny and rather strange, and the Tiger Lilies did an opera based on the book, called Shock Headed Peter in English, which is really, really worth checking out if they ever perform it near you. Oh, what the heck, I'm distracted and scattered, so I'll include the video of the songs "Bully Boys" (really a pastiche of the whole opera) and "Snip, Snip" (intact):

I love this so much. What more could you ask for? 18th-century grotesqueness, marionettes, grubby creepy sets, accordion, demented falsetto singing, and LENSES...

Harrumph. Let's see, who else?

Well, there's Thales of Miletus, an early philosopher regarded by Aristotle to be the first philosopher in the Greek tradition:

"It is said that once he (Thales) was led out of his house by an old woman for the purpose of observing the stars, and he fell into a ditch and bewailed himself. On which the old woman said to him—'Do you, O Thales, who cannot see what is under your feet, think that you shall understand what is in heaven?'"—Diogenes Laertius, Bohn's edition.

Then, in the 2001 Darwin Awards, there's this:

"A 27-year-old French woman lost control of her car on a highway near Marseilles and crashed into a tree, seriously injuring her passenger and killing herself. As a common place road accident, this would not have qualified for a Darwin nomination, were it not for the fact that the driver's attention had been distracted by her Tamagotchi key ring, which had started urgently beeping for food as she drove along. In an attempt to press the correct buttons to save the Tamagotchi's life, the woman lost
her own."

To be honest, the world right now is about as strange and scary as the video above, and I'll be back after the election decision is made, brain (hopefully) intact, to talk about less important things.

Final addendum: EEEK! The Tiger Lillies are playing in San Francisco the day after tomorrow (November 3rd) at the Swedish American Hall. Yow! Looking at the reviews, though, it looks like it could be incredibly offensive. Be warned.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who Nose?

Younger daughter wants to be a giant nose for Halloween. That's right, a nose. I've been feverishly trying to sculpt one out of felt and padding for her (see above), but I worry that she is too short, and people, not seeing the nostrils, will think it is... well, some other fleshy part.

The idea came up when I decided to read her The Nose, a short story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Now, although it is couched in terms which might be normally difficult for a 6-year-old, the basic premise - that a man (an Inspector of Reindeer, no less) might wake one morning missing his nose, and subsequently see it walking and driving about the streets dressed as a "General and Glorious Governor of Games" - is exactly the kind of thing which appeals to a 6-year-old.

There is no description of how a nose, perhaps two inches long, might later be able to get about as a well-dressed dignitary (one can only imagine it changes size at will); but these completely surreal shifts never bother children. Which is one of the things I like about the way their little brains work.

Curiously, once I began telling people about her costume I found that no one in my community, as far as I know, has ever read Gogol. What a mistake! I am not a big fan of Russian authors, myself, but his short stories are great. Do try this at home, kids.

And, in case you want to innoculate your children at an early age, I find there is now a copy of The Nose specially translated and illustrated just for kids. Pass it on!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Only One, I Promise

I don't usually post about politics. There are so many excellent political blogs out there, and it's just not my strong point. Plus, the Cabinet is really about other things which I hope go across political lines.

However, I have a comment to make about last night's the night before last's debate. If you think this might hurt our relationship as reader and writer, please stop reading now. I don't want to discourage the reading of this blog for the sake of something so ephemeral as politics.

In any case, this is what I saw: One of the candidates was trying to teach people. Not simply bluffing, or hand-waving, or bandstanding, or trying to appeal to the "typical American" (whom, as you can see in this wonderful BLDGBLOG post, is just a figment, anyway), although there is always some of that in any campaign. I saw a man, not a figurehead, and that man was being a teacher.

Now, putting aside the fact that every time this candidate spoke, the little line for Ohio women went above the little line for Ohio men, this impressed me. I do not speak as some star-struck person who doesn't understand critical thinking. I'm speaking as someone who teaches, who was raised by a teacher, and who married a teacher. Someone who likes to find out about stuff, understand stuff.

And it struck me that in my limited personal experience with presidential candidates, and from what I've heard about the candidates that went before them, this is very unusual: someone who wants us, the people, to know more, not less.

Even Roosevelt, so good at pushing policies through and explaining them to the people, did not give lessons in foreign policy or economics. The tradition of sitting down and "talking to" the people (see Nixon's infamous "Checkers Speech") has been around at least since the invention of television, when candidates (and presidents themselves) first realized they could pretend to be intimate with millions of people. They've been using it to great effect ever since. However, rarely have I seen someone so close to the presidency sit in a debate and actually try to explain how things work, in a non-condescending way.

Afterwards, the pundits said he was "flat" and "too professorial." But I disagree: I came away with a glimpse of what politics could be like, if Americans really believed in education and intelligence. Imagine a country where schools had all the funds they needed to encourage their students to do their best, to learn critical thinking from the inside out, and to use their intelligence to the best of its ability. Imagine a place where people talked about politics without getting angry or putting each other down. Imagine a place where lawmakers discussed what each bill was really about with their constituents, and then explained why they voted how they did. And imagine a country where the constituents actually understood what they were being told, where electing someone did not simply mean putting them in office and then losing any sense of participation.

How many of us remember a teacher who inspired us, who helped us see something we hadn't known about before? How meaningful was it to have that person behind you, someone you could respect and someone who cared whether you actually understood what was being taught?

I am not a political savant. It's not where my understanding lies. Economics are, for me, usually dull and tend to infuriate me, because they seem based on upwardly-spiralling principles which cannot possibly hold up to real life. But I do understand them, basically, and if someone has something to say about economics, I can usually follow their logic. And I can ask questions. I can find out.

In my opinion, the way traditional politics work, playing to an audience of perceived "typical Americans" who are, in theory, undereducated and limited in their experience, doesn't work anymore. And yet, in a strange way, this vision of mainstream America could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because policies like No Child Left Behind, which sets up impossible goals based on anything but critical thinking and creativity (learning to test well is not the same), and then doesn't provide enough funding to even meet those (decidedly limited) aims, leads to a certain dumbing-down of the population. If it weren't for teachers who really cared about their students learning something beyond taking tests, we might become a nation of nitwits. There are some who believe that we already have. I like to think people are smarter than that, and I really think that the younger generations, who are savvy in ways the older politicians can't possibly imagine, see right through it, and are, in fact, annoyed by it - and thus, don't bother to vote. And thus, we do look like nitwits sometimes, as the young, sharp brains don't participate.

Now, for the first time, I see a candidate who understands that blogging, Internet networking, gaming, and even virtual worlds are more than just things people fool around with. He understands where the newer generations are coming from, and where they're headed. And most of all, it appears that he believes we can be smart, and think about things. And that is something that gives me hope.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Another Sprog Blog

More of the Way Things Work, from the Dynamic Duo.

The Earth-Steerer: This is what makes the earth go round, literally. "It turns really, really slowly, which is why the earth moves so slow." (5-year-old)

Dreamweaver: "These things weave all the dreams in the world. Their fingers are long and skinny, and they weave dreams, which fly out the window to find the dreamers." (8-year-old)

The Earth Draw-er: "This thing is really tiny, and it goes around coloring in all the leaves and flowers and things. Because it's so tiny, it takes a long time to color things, which is why things are so slow changing color, like from Summer to Fall, or when the leaves change from Winter to Spring."

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Rule of Thumb

"Fingerprints have been found on ancient Babylonian clay tablets, seals, and pottery. They have also been found on the walls of Egyptian tombs and on Minoan, Greek, and Chinese pottery — as well as on bricks and tiles in Babylon and Rome. ...on some pottery, fingerprints were impressed so deeply that they were likely intended to serve as the equivalent of a brand label." [wiki]

There is something eternally fascinating about the ridges and whorls on our hands and feet, those unrepeatable patterns which cover most of what is termed our "volar skin", that is, skin of the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet. When I was a kid I spent hours staring at the swirls and lines, looking at where they ended - and wondering why they were there. "Designs" I called them, when I was young.

I even went through a period, when I learned about fingerprinting and the idea that everyone has completely different fingerprints, where I made everyone around me (mostly adults) squash their fingers onto my ink-pad and leave their mark on the paper which I carried around for the purpose. Of course, it wasn't washable ink, so there seemed to be an inordinate number of long-suffering, black-fingered folks around my household.

The other night I got to talking with friends about fingerprints. How do they work? Why do we have them? The conversation didn't go very far, but it did make me decide to go look it up. Forty websites later, I am still no expert, but I continue to be fascinated.

(Koala fingerprint, above, versus human, below)

For example, did you know that koalas are one of the few mammals besides primates who have fingerprints, and in fact even with an electron microscope, it is difficult to tell koala prints apart from human prints? There's a mystery story in there somewhere, like The Murders in the Rue Morgue only (hopefully) more believable (anyone met a murderous orangutan lately?). Fishers are also said to have fingerprints, which seems to me very strange: if fishers do, why not stoats? Weasels? And so on?

Spider monkeys, whose prehensile tail-tips are so sensitive and flexible that they can pick a dime up off a floor, also have prints on the bare spot at the end of their tails. Since the tails are used not only as a sort of third arm when swinging in the trees (as a safeguard from falling), but often supports the entire weight of their bodies while they feed, this would make sense: fingerprints, and other places with "friction ridges" - the volar regions - generally tend to occur where one needs to grip something. This can mean gripping an object to keep from dropping it, or (as in the case of trees) to keep it from dropping you, or simply to keep your feet steady on the rocks so you don't fall off a cliff.

But how does it work? One source I was perusing posited that there could be a Van der Waals force element, like gecko's feet. The person cited the fact that our fingertips can feel the grittiness of a powder down to about 150 microns, and then it just didn't feel gritty anymore; since Van der Waals' forces tend to show up more when something is 150 microns or smaller, he conjectured a connection.

Other sources, however, didn't support this idea, even if it appealed to me. The general belief among my local pundits was that friction ridges weren't deep enough, enclosing enough or wet enough for either suction or for cohesion; and their structure wasn't complex enough for Van der Waals. The consensus was almost entirely on friction. Given that the flesh in these dermal ridges (to use another term) are notoriously squashy (thus making crime scene fingerprints - known as "latent prints" seriously difficult to decipher), the friction thing holds up as an answer. Just as tires made of squishy gel are more likely to stick to the road than ones made of hard plastic, so do the flexible, moist areas on our hands and feet provide an excellent surface to grip with. Thus does the fingerprint contribute to our development as tool-users.

Dermal ridges develop in the womb, and are pretty much developed by seventeen weeks. The patterns on our fingers are influenced by our time in the womb: subtle stresses and tensions affect how they grow, creating uniqueness through a combination of genetics and in utero experience (as can be seen by genetically identical twins, who don't have identical fingerprints). Once the fingerprints are set, they cannot be altered easily:

"Should the top layer of skin suffer any injury, the ridges grow back after healing in the exact pattern they had before. Therefore, superficial cuts or abrasions alter fingerprint characteristics only temporarily. If the injury reaches deep into the dermis and destroys the dermal papillae, then growth of new epidermal cells is impaired and a permanent scar is created."
[New South Wales Police Department]

The way the ridges develop, oddly, depends on the arrangement of the sweat glands, rising to pores which, in the volar regions, protrude in papillae (nipple-like structures) above the baseline of the skin surface. As these grow, they also grow connections to each other in rows - and this is how the lines and whorls of the fingerprint are created.

It also explains why fingerprints - the kind the police use for identification - are often made up of what appear to be rows of dots, rather than nice smooth lines:

"Such pore holes are critical to the production of latent prints since sweat reaches the surface of the hand and efficiently coats the tops of the fingerprint ridges with sweat. Sweat glands serve as small chemical reservoirs and contain a variety of water-soluble chemical compounds, produced or stored by the body."

In other words, we leave a chemical trace when we touch things, as rows of little oily mineral sweat-dots.

For those of you who have ever worried about the old hair-on-the-palm story, you can relax: both sebaceous glands and hair follicles appear in the dermal layer of other skin surfaces but don't in friction skin. Probably for good reason. How useful would it be to have painful pimples on the palms of your hands if your best escape from predators was to swing up into a tree?

Johann Christoph Andreas Mayer recognized in 1788 that although friction ridge patterns could appear similar, they never seemed to repeat themselves. Using fingerprints' unique patterns as an identification system, however came in much later, starting with the movement to the cities in the Industrial Revolution, when people began leaving their ancestral homes, where every face was familiar, and moving into more populous environments, where they were more difficult to identify and it was harder to find out their history.

"...felons quickly learned to lie about their names, and the soaring rate of urban crime forced police to search for a more exacting way to determine and keep track of identities. The first such system was devised in 1883 by a Parisian police clerk named Alphonse Bertillon. His method, called anthropometry, relied on an elaborate set of anatomical measurements -- such as head size, length of the left middle finger, face height -- and features like scars and hair and eye color to distinguish one person from another. Anthropometry proved useful, but fingerprinting, which was then coming into use in Britain, held more promise...

Francis Galton

"In 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds published the first comments, in the scientific journal Nature, on the use of fingerprints to solve crimes. Soon afterward, Charles Darwin's misanthropic cousin, Sir Francis Galton, an anthropologist and the founder of eugenics, designed a system of numbering the ridges on the tips of fingers -- now known as Galton points -- which is still in use throughout the world. (Ultimately, though, he saw fingerprints as a way to classify people by race.)"
-- [Michael Specter, from a fascinating article on the fallibility of fingerprints in the New Yorker]

Bertillon's method was actually quite popular in France long after fingerprints had become popular everywhere else (a member of the Bonnot Gang actually sent his fingerprints to the French police because he knew they only had his physical measurements on record). This popularity after his long struggle for the legitimization of his system meant that Bertillon was able to go on to implement such innovations as mug shots, systematized crime scene photography, ways to preserve footprints and ballistics, and the dynamometer, used to determine the degree of force used in breaking and entering.

Now, after a nearly hundred and fifty years of fingerprint analysis being considered unquestionably right, despite any evidence against it in trials across the world, a few cases have brought the practice into the limelight. Much of fingerprint analysis hasn't changed since it was first created, and its status as a "science" is coming into question, since scientific method, not to mention actual studies of the practice to see how accurate it is, seem to be missing from the process.

Some people are, actually, born without fingerprints. A genetic disorder due to defects in the protein Keratin 14 lead to two different diseases causing embryos not to form friction ridges. It makes it difficult to do certain things, like turn pages or deal cards. Most of all, it makes it difficult to get certain kinds of jobs - such as school teacher, nurse, and so on. Not to mention working for the government in either law enforcement or classified work.

In the old days, safecrackers used to sand the ends of their fingers to make them more sensitive and to make their fingerprints less identifiable; but that seems to be going out of fashion in contemporary times. Nowadays, you are more likely to affect your whorls by picking up a tiny virus-based skin tumor called a plantar wart (veruca), which deforms the skin striae as it grows, making the ridges go around it. When the wart finally goes away, your striae never look quite the same...

So, the next time you are lying on the couch with a loved one's feet in your lap, have a look, and marvel at the fanciful shapes and swirling minutae of their toes. Think about how long they have been on our feet, probably millions of years, and how even though we wear shoes, our bodies still create these wonderful artworks. They really are amazing.


A simple timeline on the history of fingerprints

Michele Triplett's Fingerprint Dictionary: Every term you could possibly want to know about fingerprint analysis and police procedure.

A little YouTube of the beginning of my favorite story about safecrackers, Butch Minds The Baby

Website about Sir Francis Galton, above

Photoshop brushes which give you fingerprint effects over at DeviantArt