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

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Writing Madly, Birthday NotMoney

My brain's been full lately of the novel I'm working on, based in the Neddeth's Bed universe ('ware: Neddeth's Bed is an intermittent, first-draft worldbuilding exercise, not to be confused with finished product!), and it (the manuscript) has been eating my life, in a much slower way than I would wish. Describing things always takes so much longer than reading said descriptions! It feels like the characters are moving at a snail's pace. So I apologize for being absent so much, but I really, really want to get this thing done! So close...

That said, I had a birthday (harrumph), and was given some very cool stuff. So, at the risk of eroding a reputation for actually having thoughts, I will present you with the following very interesting filler.

It seems that during World War I, in Austria and Germany, there was a moment when the metal that coins were made of became more valuable than the money it represented. People began hoarding coins, and during the war, the metal which was available was needed for the war.

The shortage of metal meant people were having trouble, well, making change. So individual cities, local banks and citizen's organizations and so on began to take it on themselves to print what were called "Notgeld," which means "emergency money" or "necessity money", mostly colorful paper notes in low denominations (although they also used linen, tin foil, porcelain, and coal, to name a few unusual materials).

Notgeld began during the war and carried on into the period before and slightly overlapping the height of hyperinflation, when it took the proverbial wheelbarrow of money to buy an egg (more on that next post), which happened in the early 1920s. So I suspect a lot of these notgeld were printed. And, since they were really, really beautifully-designed (this was the height of German Expressionism, after all), people began to collect them. And, since people collected the pretty ones, there began to be some competition about who could produce the prettiest.

Which goes to show that even in the worst of all possible worlds, there are microcosms of beauty.

So the long and short of it is, my friend Gwyan got me some paper notgeld (and one porcelain coin which doesn't scan well) for my birthday. And they are really, really beautiful. So I will share a selection of them with you...