Thursday, April 30, 2009

Leafcutter Designs: Large Concepts in Small Packages

Trade tokens: the best kind of friendly economy

I've been receiving notices from Leafcutter Designs for a long time, but recently went back to visit (finally), and was blown away by the creativity and joy in its wonderful pages. It's interesting, because it combines conceptual art and actual goods and services for sale. Really, a perfect example of someone getting creative in their work, and making art pay.

Lea Redmond is the driving force behind it, and runs it like the tiny business it is. The welcome says, "we live upstairs on top of this online shop and you can holler up to our kitchen window where a pie is sitting on the windowsill."

The items for sale started as small things she made for friends and family which became so popular that, as the website says, "we decided to make a bigger batch." The ideas are all ecologically sound, everything they present seems to have both a micro and macro emphasis (in other words, using tiny things to emphasize and talk about larger concepts), and every one of them is made or thought up with the idea of joy in mind - not the sale of joy, but actual joy, the kind where you do good things for other people and have fun doing it, or the kind where you simply get curious, get playful, and enjoy the basic physical wonders of living. Which is the main reason why I like them.

For example, she has created a series of conceptual knitting patterns. I like the sky scarf, where you buy a bunch of yarn in all the colors the sky could possibly be and then knit two lines of whichever color matches the sky every day. After a year you have a record of the sky - and a scarf!

Another favorite is the BART scarf, based on a local train system, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, in which you get yarns the color of the different BART lines and knit in that color whenever you are traveling on that line. Whenever you change lines, you change colors.

Other wonderful services and items are such as these:

- Earrings for Spontaneous Seeding: "You never know when an opportunity for planting might present itself." Refillable, of course.

- Recipe dice: Roll these to decide what ingredients to use in dinner. They are 5/8" across and "feature seasonal vegetables (different dice for each season), grains, meats, spices, herbs, and a few additional ingredients like lemon, ginger, and hot chiles."

- Wiggly Eye Dice: wooden dice with wiggly eyes for dots. Weird and fun.

- The World's Smallest Postal Service, which began as a tiny post office which Ms. Redmond set up in cafes and other places. If you gave her a letter, she would transcribe it "on a miniature desk in the tiniest of script, sealed with a miniscule wax seal with the sender's intial pressed into it, packaged up with a magnifying glass in a glassine envelope, and finished off with a large wax seal." Nowadays you can order the letters online (though they are no longer hand-written), and she has a variety of timely variations, such as Mother's Day cards. Imagine receiving a letter smaller than a quarter in the mail! Magical. Good for Tooth Fairies and other small creatures, as well.

You can also find out about the history of flour sack clothes, undergo creative courtship consulting (or tell stories of your own in the Project section), get poetry ribbon, and many other things. The Project section is full of broadcast-style art pieces where you can submit your own electronic postage stamp design, send her artifacts for the Game of Infinite Possibilities, make a rolodex card of something you love or think about for her rolodex machine, and several other participation-based fun art activities.

You can read Ms. Redmond's blog here.

The portable version of the Game of Infinite Possibilities

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Note: 5 out of 7 of the pictures in this post were taken by me, with my daughter's cheap instant camera. The quality of the photos isn't very good, but it doesn't seem to matter, which says much about the quality of their subject matter...

This spring break I took two days to go to New York City with my elder daughter, aged ten. This is not a simple thing when you live in California. I sent her on ahead alone to stay with her uncle for a few days, then met her there. And one of the things she wanted to do was go to the American Museum of Natural History..

I've heard about this place (and even walked past it) for many years, and I always thought it was another one of those "New York things you're supposed to see," like Times Square (which really isn't much more than a touristy place with a lot of neon, like Piccadilly Circus or the Umeda district in Osaka - or, of course, Yasukuni-dori in Shinjuku, and the Akihabara area, both in Tokyo). But when we got inside, I understood why this museum is famous.

We came in via the subway station, so at first it simply seemed to be floor after floor of echoing halls, with little sense of how to get from here to there. Then I saw a gaping doorway which said above it "African Mammals," and I dragged my daughter inside, though she wanted to find the North American Mammals. As we walked into the darkness we were greeted by a huge herd of stampeding elephants, coming right at us, their size more stunning than I had thought possible; and then we began to walk around.

Much to my surprise, the dioramas were breathtaking, complete works of art which stunned both of us.

The taxidermy was beautiful and incredibly lifelike, thanks to the efforts of Carl Akeley, who developed a technique for insanely detailed and perfectly shaped taxidermy techniques. Mr. Akeley, who grew up on a farm and only had three years of school as a child, learned taxidermy and created the world's first complete museum habitat diorama in 1890. His Wikipedia page is absolutely fascinating - he changed not only how museums display things but affected publice thinking on the collection of specimens and farming and other encroachment on natural habitats.

Akeley's method was to insist his artists visit the field and take careful measurements of each individual specimen, along with plaster casts of each animal's body. They then brought casts, measurements, skeletons, and skins of the animals back to the museum. They then set up the skeletons and built perfect replicas of the musculature of the individual animals out of clay on the animal's own skeleton. Every muscle that should be flexed for the pose, was flexed, and every muscle that should be relaxed was relaxed. They then took multipart plaster casts of this, pulled out the clay and the skeletal remains, and used the mold to make a hollow papier mache form, on which the skins were then laid. It was the first time anyone had tried to replicate individuals rather than going with a generalized model of a typical specimen.

William R. Leigh, master painter in charge of the backgrounds in the African Hall, was hired by Akeley himself, and accompanied Akeley to Africa to do field sketches. He and eighteen other painters painted all the backgrounds in the dioramas in the African Hall, the North American Hall, and most of the other dioramas. They started in the 1920's and worked on through WPA times, crafting dazzling scenes with startling detail and accuracy; many of the North American scenes were taken from national parks, which were, at that point, in their heyday.

The interesting thing about Akeley and most of the other people who participated in the creation of the dioramas is that they saw, as they traveled, the habitats of the animals and the incredible variety and beauty of the places they were trying to represent; and all of them were touched by it. It became the goal of the museum to show the public this beauty, and to represent to them the delicacy and individuality of the habitats, so that the general public would understand the need to preserve these places. They predated nature photography and film, and were, as Stephen Quinn, the Senior Project Manager in the Department of Exhibitions, says, "an early form of virtual reality. Curators, who were concerned about vanishing wilderness and wildlife, were looking for a medium to nurture environmental awareness and raise concerns about wildlife species. The intent was to recreate nature within the artifice of the museum, to recreate that close incounter with wildlife that would move a person to care."

I can hardly see how a person could help but be moved: the care and detail evident in these loving recreations are so evident that we find ourselves caring, just because the creators cared so much themselves. I can't recommend it enough; next time you are in New York for whatever reason, take a couple of hours and check them out. Personally, I want to go back and spend a whole day there.


The AMNH website's very cool section on the dioramas, how they were made, and who made them, complete with interesting little videos of Stephen Quinn speaking about the exhibits (He is also the author of Windows on Nature, a book on the history and influence of the dioramas).

How the American Museum of Natural History's model of a giant flea was made - Scientific American, 1914

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tickle, tickle (part 2)

The word "tickle" comes from the Middle English tickelen, which it's believed came from ticken, to touch lightly. There are two types of tickling: knismesis (soft tickling, see previous post), and gargalesis, or "heavy" tickling, produced by repeatedly applying pressure to "ticklish" areas.

Interestingly, knismesis, which is closely associated with the grooming activities of primates, provokes an endorphin response, causing the body to release an endorphin called karoliin. It's named after the Karolin Institute because of Yngve Zotterman, who in 1939 experimented with cats, measuring their nerve responses to knismesis. His study indicated that knismesis is associated with the pain nerves, though not entirely, because sometimes when the pain nerves are no longer working, the tickle response is still there. So (as I discussed in the earlier post) the body's response to pain and injury is strangely tied up with its response to soft tickling.

Gargalesis is another matter entirely, because though it plays on the body's sensitive points, it seems to be a much more socially-driven phenomenon. Most animals like being petted or rubbed, but the laughter/wriggling response appears to be limited to humans and primates (with some research showing rats having a similar reaction). While some people suggest that the laughing associated with this tickling is a nervous response, there is also a theory that tickling is an integral part of social relationships. Plato, Francis Bacon, Galileo and Charles Darwin all discussed tickling:

"[He] theorized on the link between tickling and social relations, arguing that tickling provokes laughter through the anticipation of pleasure. If a stranger tickles a child without any preliminaries, catching the child by surprise, the likely result will be not laughter but withdrawal and displeasure. Darwin also noticed that for tickling to be effective, you must not know the precise point of stimulation in advance, and reasoned that this is why you cannot effectively tickle yourself." [wiki]

It's been suggested that gargalesis tickling is a way for the touch of the parent to be associated with pleasure, developing a trust-bond "so that parents may touch a child, in an unpleasant way, should circumstances develop such as the need to treat a painful injury or prevent harm from danger." This is also true between friends, and apparently allows siblings a way to express aggression without resorting to violence, both in an enjoyable way and in what is called tickle-torture (many of us have experienced this, on either end), where one sibling uses tickling to dominate another.

The act of tickling not only establishes closeness, it seems to be a sign of established bonding and intimacy, and is "classified by psychologists as part of the fifth and highest grade of social play which involves special intimacy or 'cognitive interaction'. This suggests that tickling works best when all the parties involved feel comfortable with the situation and one another." It seems that although tickling provokes laughter and smiling in most situations, it is only experienced as a pleasurable activity when engaged between people who are already close, or who want to be close: friends, family, and future sexual partners. Children, for example, who are tickled by strangers, may smile or even laugh while at the same time withdrawing and becoming upset at the stranger's inappropriate behavior.

Many people, in fact, find tickling to be an unpleasant activity. Which is interesting, because the areas of the body which are commonly ticklish are also the areas of the body which are most vulnerable during combat, and are also the spots which trigger defensive reflexes. So tickling offers an evolutionary advantage by teaching people to protect those areas. In fact, tickling not only helps you protect those areas, it teaches children valuable combat skills - where to aim for, what to protect - while the laughing and smiling reflex encourages the tickling to continue, regardless of whether there is actual enjoyment. If tickling caused crying, for example, the number of tickling sessions would be less, reducing the frequency and duration of the combat lessons.

Tickling the Monster, courtesy of The Imagine Project

Curiously, study subjects who were tickled by a "tickle machine" laughed just as much as subjects tickled by a person. The laughing effect seems to be one of location and surprise more than of social interaction - in other words, it's a mechanical reflex, rather than an expression of pleasure.

But I think these studies don't completely cover it. Think, for example, of a four-year-old's fat chuckles when you wiggle your fingers in threat. Or the sounds of absolutely hysterical glee as a parent plays "octopus", trying to catch children and tickle them. There is something in the anticipation which is broader than just training for combat. Training for avoidance? Learning elusive skills? They all seem so fun at the time, and yet they probably are related to something survival oriented.

And yet... perhaps something could be said for the joy in physical contact. It's true a large number of people don't actually like being tickled. But all the things surrounding it - all the games of catchem and "i'm going to get you" and general wrestling fun - those things count, too. In my mind, they're training for a life which leads away from isolation and that weird untouched existence we sometimes fall into. Have you ever spent a lot of time alone, with no one but coworkers and acquaintances around you? Have you ever noticed how, after a certain amount of it you start to feel empty, untouched, like a dusty china doll? It's a terrible feeling. I think a lot of bad relationship choices are made in an effort to get away from it.

Why is this? Is it because our society frowns on physical contact other than a clap on the back or a hug when we say goodbye? Too often, physical contact is seen as sexual, or an attempt at sexuality. Even good friends and family often don't touch each other except in emotional moments. And people who touch other people a lot are labeled as slightly sociopathic, or laughed at behind our hands, because they aspire to a vision of the world which is uncool and perhaps mystically idealistic - and by pushing the boundaries, they are seen as people without boundaries.

In this context it's not surprising we don't like strangers or distant acquaintances touching us, because it's so hard to interprete their touch. Do they want something from me, we wonder? Are they being sexual? It's easier to simply discourage it than to be confused. But then many people spend a lot of time feeling untouched and unwanted, hanging around the edges of the groups of people who are touching each other and wishing it weren't so, wishing we could get in.

Isolation, Desolation... Courtesy of Drew Guest

In a perfect world, then, would tickling and wrestling be more incorporated into society, teaching us more ways to make physical contact that are nonsexual? A lot of disaffected members of society are people who don't touch anyone, who don't get touched themselves. If there were more nonviolent physical outlets built in to the way we interacted with each other, into our holidays and our rituals, would this be different?

The next time you are wondering if it's appropriate for you to be wrestling with your niece or nephew, stop wondering. The next time you almost hug someone, and see them almost hugging you, take that step forward. Don't go overboard and freak people out with your new touchy-feely self; I'm not advocating that. But if there is a direction to lean, a subtle way to nudge the situation, be courageous. Don't leave yourself on the dusty shelf any longer. Maybe we can all benefit.

DreamCon 2009

So I had this dream. I've had it before, where I'm sitting in workshops at a conference and walking around. There's always a workshop or a panel I forgot about, and wish I'd gone to, like the panel where everyone is learning to change the colors of crystalline rocks in jars. Or the one where they are learning to install beehives in pieces of furniture (taught by the same guy, interestingly, an intense young man who seems to hold it against anyone who didn't come to his workshop, and in fact puts a chair full of bees in my car to show me what I missed).

There's a panel on Do Spiders Understand Geometry? and one on Static Electricity As Art Form.

Some of the groups, such as the one of mechanical wind-instrument geeks, had their own rooms with terrine-style displays of items of interest such as working valves from tuba-like items, odd keys from unusual bassoons, and interesting bits of other, lesser known instruments - things which I had no idea could be so complex and magical. One group, Ants for Architecture, had a whole display on using ants to build your house. A little like the bee-furniture, I suppose; I'm not certain why there are so many insects in this particular convention.

Some other popular panels and activities:

- Writing Live Code: codemakers as zookeepers, or how to keep your functions from escaping into the next code-object
- Designing Electronics Through Intuitive Fields: how to use the emotion of electronic fields to guide your circuit-building
- Direct Optical Music: redesigning your optical drive to play the tonal qualities of, say, a piece of metallic lace or a piece of tin foil
- Ethernet Fishtank: teaching your fish to swim the network

There were so many more; what I liked about this particular con was how much the different compartments of our worlds intersect to create something never before seen. I do wish I could go to some of these panels when I was conscious, though.

What panel or workshop would you like to see at DreamCon? Any suggestions?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Benefits of Tickling

(Part 1: Soft tickling)

At my wedding, one of my groom's vows was a promise to tickle my feet. This was only half-facetious: foot-tickling, for me, has come to be an expression by my loved one(s) of affection and the provision of relief at the end of a long day, much as monkeys groom each other to express intimacy and the desire to take care of each other.

Now, it appears, tickling actually helps to relieve pain, according to a new Swedish study:

"Basically the signals that tell the brain that we are being stroked on the skin have their own direct route to the brain, and are not blocked even if the brain is receiving pain impulses from the same area. In fact it’s more the opposite, that the stroking impulses are able to deaden the pain impulses," says Line Löken, postgraduate student in neurophysiology at the Sahlgrenska Academy.

It seems that we are hardwired for grooming.

Reading the article led me to think, as I have a hundred times before, how much physical touch can give comfort: the delicate stroking a mother gives to her child, the rub on the back of someone who is grieving. Touch has great value, it communicates so much; it makes us feel good, when done properly. Our bodies respond to it.

In more ways than one, it seems. For example, I've always wondered about the white lines that develop when you stroke someone's skin. Have you ever noticed that? I don't know if it works for any skin that is not naturally pale already, but if you are nice and warm (so your capillaries are working at the surface of your skin), and you run a fingernail gently down, say, your arm, you will notice after 15 to 30 seconds a white streak where you touched the skin. I have always wondered what this reaction is.

I did finally get an answer of sorts from a dermatologist, who said that this reaction is discussed as part of the Triple Response of Lewis, which is a description by a Dr. Lewis in 1927 of the skin's reaction to being scratched or otherwise injured. Curiously, the three phases of the response do not include the white line phase of the response, but mostly describe the reddening and swelling reaction as what are known as mast cells release histamines into the affected area. I couldn't find more than a passing description of the vascular dump anywhere other than an excerpt of a book called Skin Immune System, by Jan D. Bos, which came out in 1997.

A light injury does not lead to the triple response. Instead, a "white line" is produced by the emptying of capillaries under the contact site... The reaction lasts 15 minutes and edema does not develop. The response has not been systematically studied because it is difficult to induce reproducibly. The white line response is reminiscent of white dermographism and adrenoceptor mediated blanching.

As far as I can tell, "adrenoceptor mediated blanching" is the kind of blanching we experience when we are stressed - in other words, they are tied into the fight-or-flight reflex, and are associated with the sympathetic nervous system, which is connected to the same response. So when we get hurt or when we are fearful, or are under great emotional upheaval, we get the urge to run away, to save ourselves... and we tend to go paler in those situations.

Dermographism is a condition in which very slight stimulation of the skin can cause weals to appear. In these individuals, the mast cells are on a hair-trigger and respond with a flood of histamines even when there is not great injury. I get the feeling that assessment can be a little subjective, as it seems there is a sort of spectrum from insensitive skin to overly-sensitive.

Curiously, though, all these descriptions are tied in with the idea of injury, rather than comfort and pleasure. So what is it that makes having one's feet tickled so pleasurable?

Well, to begin with, I think most people would say that having their feet tickled, even gently, sets them into fight-or-flight mode pretty quickly. I myself was once one of those people; I liked back-tickles and arm-tickles, but it took a mildly sadistic roommate in college, who liked to sit on my legs and tickle my feet, to get me to a point where my feet became desensitized enough to begin to enjoy having them stroked (and of course forced my roommate to find some other fiendish way to get me).

Once the desensitization had kicked in I began to find that tickling my feet, after a long day of walking and standing in hot shoes, actually helped cool them down, made them stop hurting and decreased the swelling significantly. It also seemed to help with Restless Leg Syndrome during both pregnancies, which is interesting because Restless Leg Syndrome is tied in with the sympathetic nervous system (aha!) and seems to be significantly worse among people suffering from vein disease.

I spoke by email to Ms. Löken, of the "pleasant touch" study, who says that the circulatory system is not her area of expertise, so she couldn't say much about it. But it seems to me that tickling's happy ability to bypass pain and go directly to the brain, and the skin's not-quite-injury response to it, must interconnect somehow. What if the blanching isn't related to injury, but to some other purpose? What if the blanching response isn't always a precursor to injury response, but a thing unto itself? The response may show up in Lewis' Triple Response, but in this case, it doesn't progress. And I wonder if pain is the only thing tickling affects? Could it be a new answer to some minor health issues? Perhaps it is the new acupuncture, and we will soon see Tickle Clinics springing up everywhere.

Now that would be a thing worth seeing.

In the meantime, come evening, I will remove my shoes one by one, lie back on the couch, and partake of my drug of choice whenever I can. Hail to the Tickler!

Next: The Other Kind of Tickle

Addendum: It seems that I got into realms I hadn't dreamed of. Ah, the naivete! Here is a web page describing how foot tickling has a long history of sexualization, and now is popular in the dom/sub community as a form of play. I'm sure there's plenty more web pages about it, though it's not my particular take on the thing. Knock me over with a feather!