All Hallows’ Eve

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

I’ve written a surprising amount about Halloween and horror over the years:

We’ve all been planet chauvinists

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

Gerard K. O’Neill (The High Frontier) and Isaac Asimov appeared in a 1975 Roundtable TV interview, where Asimov noted that he and his fellow science-fiction writers failed to imagine free-floating space colonies:

Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon. So have a hundred other science fiction writers. The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the Asteroid Belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the Earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.

Steven Levy was able to interview Jeff Bezos — head of Amazon, of course, but also Blue Origin — only after watching that O’Neill-Asimov interview.

That vision captivated a generation of space nerds, including Bezos, who believed it back then, as a brainy schoolkid. And he believes it now, with “increasing conviction” every passing year. Earth is destined to run out of resources, he explains patiently to anyone questioning his priorities. Humans need a plan B. While he readily concedes that building a space company qualifies as a cool adventure, the ultimate point, he always insists, is getting people to live in space. He often remarks with astonishment and disgust that there have never been more than 13 humans in space at one time. He’s out to change that, by creating the backbone needed for O’Neill’s millions, billions, maybe even a trillion people to reside off-planet.

Why is English so weirdly different from other languages?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University, explains why English is so weirdly different from other languages:

The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a “spelling bee” competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.

[...]

There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort. German and Dutch are like that, as are Spanish and Portuguese, or Thai and Lao. The closest an Anglophone can get is with the obscure Northern European language called Frisian.

[...]

We think it’s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family — Indo-European — and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.

[...]

There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third-person singular. I’m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s — why just that? The present-tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something. Do you find that difficult?

Read the whole thing.

McWhorter’s book, The Language Hoax, refutes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language influences thought, and that some languages might lead to clearer thinking.

The Russians are considering a semi-catamaran aircraft carrier

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

I don’t know much about naval architecture, but I remember idly musing — while reading about World War II, of course — that a catamaran design would allow an almost arbitrarily large flight deck on an aircraft carrier — and I wondered what I was missing.

Now it looks like the Russians are considering a semi-catamaran design for their new Krylov light aircraft carrier:

The underwater part of the light aircraft carrier features a semi-catamaran hull which is the major distinction of the project designed by the Krylov Scientific Center, a representative of the organization told TASS.

Krylov Light Aircraft Carrier Stern

“The project is distinguished by the underwater part of a semi-catamaran form. Catamaran actually means two hulls united by a platform. It has a wide deck which is important for an aircraft carrier. The design adds flight deck space on which the number of aircraft depends. As a result, a medium-displacement ship can carry a full-fledged air wing,” he said.

Abixia is a paracosm

Saturday, September 29th, 2018

Alison Gopnik explores the imaginary worlds of childhood:

In 19th-century England, the Brontë children created Gondal, an imaginary kingdom full of melodrama and intrigue. Emily and Charlotte Brontë grew up to write the great novels “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre.” The fictional land of Narnia, chronicled by C.S. Lewis in a series of classic 20th-century novels, grew out of Boxen, an imaginary kingdom that Lewis shared with his brother when they were children. And when the novelist Anne Perry was growing up in New Zealand in the 1950s, she and another girl created an imaginary kingdom called Borovnia as part of an obsessive friendship that ended in murder — the film “Heavenly Creatures” tells the story.

But what about Abixia? Abixia is an island nation on the planet Rooark, with its own currency (the iinter, divided into 12 skilches), flag and national anthem. It’s inhabited by cat-humans who wear flannel shirts and revere Swiss army knives — the detailed description could go on for pages. And it was created by a pair of perfectly ordinary Oregon 10-year-olds.

Abixia is a “paracosm,” an extremely detailed and extensive imaginary world with its own geography and history. The psychologist Marjorie Taylor at the University of Oregon and her colleagues discovered Abixia, and many other worlds like it, by talking to children. Most of what we know about paracosms comes from writers who described the worlds they created when they were children. But in a paper forthcoming in the journal Child Development, Prof. Taylor shows that paracosms aren’t just the province of budding novelists. Instead, they are a surprisingly common part of childhood.

Prof. Taylor asked 169 children, ages eight to 12, whether they had an imaginary world and what it was like. They found that about 17 percent of the children had created their own complicated universe. Often a group of children would jointly create a world and maintain it, sometimes for years, like the Brontë sisters or the Lewis brothers. And grown-ups were not invited in.

Prof. Taylor also tried to find out what made the paracosm creators special. They didn’t score any higher than other children in terms of IQ, vocabulary, creativity or memory. Interestingly, they scored worse on a test that measured their ability to inhibit irrelevant thoughts. Focusing on the stern and earnest real world may keep us from wandering off into possible ones.

But the paracosm creators were better at telling stories, and they were more likely to report that they also had an imaginary companion. In earlier research, Prof. Taylor found that around 66% of preschoolers have imaginary companions; many paracosms began with older children finding a home for their preschool imaginary friends.

Children with paracosms, like children with imaginary companions, weren’t neurotic loners either, as popular stereotypes might suggest. In fact, if anything, they were more socially skillful than other children.

Why do imaginary worlds start to show up when children are eight to 12 years old? Even when 10-year-olds don’t create paracosms, they seem to have a special affinity for them — think of all the young “Harry Potter” fanatics. And as Prof. Taylor points out, paracosms seem to be linked to all the private clubhouses, hidden rituals and secret societies of middle childhood.

Prof. Taylor showed that preschoolers who create imaginary friends are particularly good at understanding other people’s minds — they are expert at everyday psychology. For older children, the agenda seems to shift to what we might call everyday sociology or geography. Children may create alternative societies and countries in their play as a way of learning how to navigate real ones in adult life.

You’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018

Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson), author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, explains the importance of generating alternatives to any course of action you are considering:

In the early 1980s, a business school professor named Paul Nutt set out to catalog real-world decisions the way a botanist might catalog the various types of vegetation growing in a rain forest. In his initial study, published in 1984, he analyzed 78 decisions made by senior managers at a range of public and private organizations in the United States and Canada: insurance companies, government agencies, hospitals, consulting firms.

The most striking finding in Professor Nutt’s research was this: Only 15 percent of the decisions he studied involved a stage where the decision makers actively sought out a new option beyond the initial choices on the table. In a later study, he found that only 29 percent of organizational decision makers contemplated more than one alternative.

This turns out to be a bad strategy. Over the years, Professor Nutt and other researchers have demonstrated a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself. In one of his studies, Professor Nutt found that participants who considered only one alternative ultimately judged their decision a failure more than 50 percent of the time, while decisions that involved contemplating at least two alternatives were felt to be successes two-thirds of the time.

The upshot is clear: If you find yourself mapping a “whether or not” question, looking at a simple fork in the road, you’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question that gives you more available paths.

He continues with a rather fashionable follow-on notion:

What’s the best way to expand your pool of options? Researchers suggest that if possible, you diversify the group of people who are helping make the decision. About a decade ago, the social psychologist Samuel Sommers conducted a series of mock trials in which a jury debated and evaluated evidence from a sexual assault case. Some of the juries were entirely white, while other juries were more diverse in their racial makeup. By almost every important metric, the racially mixed juries performed better at their task. They considered more potential interpretations of the evidence, remembered information about the case more accurately and engaged in the deliberation process with more rigor and persistence.

Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly. They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.

A 2008 study led by the management professor Katherine Phillips using a similar investigative structure revealed an additional, seemingly counterintuitive finding: While the more diverse groups were better at reaching the truth, they were also far less confident in the decisions they made. They were both more likely to be right and, at the same time, more open to the idea that they might be wrong.

Mechanical jokes and flat cats

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

I never read any of Heinlein’s “juveniles” while a juvenile, but I recently listened to the audiobook version of The Rolling Stones, which includes a rant about cars:

Despite their great sizes and tremendous power spaceships are surprisingly simple machines. Every technology goes through three stages: first a crudely simple and quite unsatisfactory gadget; second, an enormously complicated group of gadgets designed to overcome the short-comings of the original and achieving thereby somewhat satisfactory performance through extremely complex compromise; third, a final proper design therefrom.

In transportation the ox cart and the rowboat represent the first stage of technology.

The second stage may well be represented by the automobiles of the middle twentieth century just before the opening of interplanatery travel. These unbelievable museum pieces were fro their time fast, sleek and powerful — but inside their skins were assembled a preposterous collection of mechanical buffoonery. The prime mover for such a juggernaut might have rested in one’s lap; the rest of the mad assembly consisted of afterthoughts intended to correct the uncorrectable, to repair the original basic mistake in design — for automobiles and even the early aeroplanes were “powered” (if on may call it that) by “reciprocating engines.” A reciprocating engine was a collection of miniature heat engines using (in a basically inefficient cycle) a small percentage of an exothermic chemical reaction, a reaction which was started and stopped every split second. Much of the heat was intentionally thrown away into a “water jacket” or “cooling system,” then wasted into the atmosphere through a heat exchanger.

What little was left caused blocks of metal to thump foolishly back-and-forth (hence the name “reciprocating”) and thence through a linkage to cause a shaft and flywheel to spin around. The flywheel (believe it if you can) had no gyroscopic function; it was used to store kinetic energy in a futile attempt to cover up the sins of reciprocation. The shaft at long last caused the wheels to turn and thereby propelled this pile of junk over the countryside.

The prime mover was used only to accelerate and to overcome “friction” — a concept then in much wider engineering use. To decelerate, stop, or turn, the heroic human operator used his own muscle power, multiplied precariously through a series of levers.

Despite the name “automobile” these vehicles had no autocontrol circuits; control, such as it was, was exercised second by second for hours on end by a human being peering out through a small pane of dirty silica glass, and judging unassisted and often disastrously his own motion and those of other objects. In almost all cases the operator had no notion of the kinetic energy stored in his missile and could not have written the basic equation. Newton’s Laws of Motion were to him mysteries as profound as the meaning of the universe.

Nevertheless millions of these mechanical jokes swarmed over our home planet, dodging each other by inches or failing to dodge. None of them ever worked right; by their nature they could not work right; and they were constantly getting out of order. Their operators were usually mightily pleased when they worked at all. When they did not, which was every few hundred miles (hundred, not hundred thousand), they hired a member of a social class of arcane specialists to make inadequate and always expensive temporary repairs.

Despite their mad shortcomings, these “automobiles” were the most characteristic form of wealth and the most cherished possessions of their time. Three whole generations were slaves to them.

The book is also the source of the original tribble and its associated troubles:

The similarities to the flat cats and the some specific story events involving them was brought to the attention of the Star Trek staff when Desilu/Paramount’s primary in-house clearance group, Kellam de Forest Research, submitted a report on the script on August of 1967, noting the similarities of “a small, featureless, fluffy, purring animal, friendly and loving, that reproduces rapidly when fed, and nearly engulfs a spaceship”. So worrisome was this matter that the producers contacted Heinlein and asked for a waiver, which Heinlein granted. In his authorized biography Heinlein said he was called by producer Gene Coon about the issue and agreed to waive claim to the “similarity” to his flat cats because he’d just been through one plagiarism lawsuit and did not wish to embroil himself in another. He had misgivings upon seeing the actual script but let it go, an action he later regretted.

No more than a few dozen excellent examples were ever published

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby kicked off a wave of horror novels that flourished throughout the 1970s and 80s. James Clavell’s Shogun kicked off a similar, smaller wave of historical adventure novels set in Asia:

I’ve long been a big fan of these books which, for lack of a better term, I refer to collectively as ‘The Children of Shogun.’

Alas, Shogun didn’t produce nearly as many bastard offspring as Rosemary’s Baby did. It was fairly easy for any professional writer with imagination and a passion for horror stories to turn out a handful of 300-page supernatural thrillers over the course of a couple of decades. Producing a 900-page Shogun-like epic is another matter entirely. The Children of Shogun were written mostly by men and women with years of personal experience in Asia. They tended to be journalists or academics with a profound interest in the history and culture of the East. If you were a horror fan in the 1970s and ’80s (and I was), it was easy to find titles to feed your hunger for demonic children, seductive witches, and haunted houses. If you craved massive historical epics featuring singsong girls, opium pipes, rickshaws, treaty ports, forbidden cities, warlords, seppuku, pillow dictionaries, foot binding, and godowns filled with tea or silk or jade, feeding your hunger took a bit more initiative.

Nevertheless, quite a few such books got published between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, and I’ve read dozens of them. The phenomenon seems to have faded over the past 20 years, giving way to other literary booms: vampire novels, fantasy epics, young-adult dystopian series. It is unlikely the boom will ever be revived. In a critical review of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth posted on Goodreads, author Celeste Ng probably spoke for many of today’s progressive readers when she complained about “the weirdness that arises from a Westerner writing about a colonized country.” Apparently it’s all right when an Asian author like Haruki Murakami (whose work I love) writes novels inspired by the likes of Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, and Franz Kafka. But Westerners who write about the adventures of English-speaking protagonists in Asia are likely to be shouted down with accusations of cultural appropriation.

[...]

One thing that stands out about these authors is that many of them led lives nearly as adventurous as their protagonists. Anthony Grey spent 27 months in a Chinese prison. During his long career in journalism, Noel Barber was stabbed five times and shot in the head once. James Clavell was a prisoner of war during WWII. Robert Elegant covered both the Korean and Vietnam wars as a journalist and Richard Nixon once called him “my favorite China expert.” If books in this genre seem somewhat more convincing than horror novels of the same era, perhaps it’s because no horror novelists of the era were ever actually possessed by Satan, bitten by vampires, or capable of starting fires with their minds. But, while horror novels are still being churned out in large numbers, almost no one is writing Shogun-like sagas any longer. Soon the genre may cease to exist entirely. If you don’t believe me, consider the decline of the American Indian novel written by white authors.

During much of the twentieth century, white American authors produced some excellent novels featuring Native American characters. The list includes masterpieces such as Oliver La Farge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Laughing Boy (1929) and Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Medal-winning Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960). Other prominent titles in the genre include Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel Little Big Man (subsequently adapted into a film starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway directed by Arthur Penn), Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1967), and Douglas C. Jones’s A Creek Called Wounded Knee (1978).

But the production of such novels has dwindled markedly over the last 40 years or so. This probably has something to do with what happened to Ruth Beebe Hill after the publication of her 1978 novel Hanta Yo. The early reviews of the book were positive. A reviewer for the Harvard Crimson called Hanta Yo “the best researched novel yet written about an American Indian tribe.” Native American author N. Scott Momaday, author of House Made of Dawn, admired the book. David Wolper, the producer of the landmark TV miniseries Roots purchased the film rights to Hanta Yo and planned to give it the same treatment as Roots. Alas, before Wolper could put his plan into action, the book began drawing criticism from Native American groups contending that it was an inaccurate portrayal of the Sioux.

[...]

If you haven’t yet experienced the joys of exploring ‘The Children of Shogun,’ a great literary pleasure still awaits you. But read slowly and linger over each book. No more than a few dozen excellent examples were ever published. And no new titles are likely to appear in the foreseeable future, if Celeste Ng and her ilk have their way.

Gastronomy is the science of pain

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

Anthony Bourdain got his start in writing with this piece for the The New Yorker — which, from the get-go, demonstrates his dark streak:

Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger — risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.

Gastronomy is the science of pain. Professional cooks belong to a secret society whose ancient rituals derive from the principles of stoicism in the face of humiliation, injury, fatigue, and the threat of illness. The members of a tight, well-greased kitchen staff are a lot like a submarine crew. Confined for most of their waking hours in hot, airless spaces, and ruled by despotic leaders, they often acquire the characteristics of the poor saps who were press-ganged into the royal navies of Napoleonic times — superstition, a contempt for outsiders, and a loyalty to no flag but their own.

Ape-men and dactyloscopy

Friday, April 13th, 2018

When I first read Tarzan of the Apes years ago, I was surprised by a number of things, including how fingerprints were still seen as cutting-edge science in a novel from 1912:

The ape-man was anxious to proceed to America, but D’Arnot insisted that he must accompany him to Paris first, nor would he divulge the nature of the urgent necessity upon which he based his demand.

One of the first things which D’Arnot accomplished after their arrival was to arrange to visit a high official of the police department, an old friend; and to take Tarzan with him.

Adroitly D’Arnot led the conversation from point to point until the policeman had explained to the interested Tarzan many of the methods in vogue for apprehending and identifying criminals.

Not the least interesting to Tarzan was the part played by finger prints in this fascinating science.

“But of what value are these imprints,” asked Tarzan, “when, after a few years the lines upon the fingers are entirely changed by the wearing out of the old tissue and the growth of new?”

“The lines never change,” replied the official. “From infancy to senility the fingerprints of an individual change only in size, except as injuries alter the loops and whorls. But if imprints have been taken of the thumb and four fingers of both hands one must needs lose all entirely to escape identification.”

“It is marvelous,” exclaimed D’Arnot. “I wonder what the lines upon my own fingers may resemble.”

“We can soon see,” replied the police officer, and ringing a bell he summoned an assistant to whom he issued a few directions.

The man left the room, but presently returned with a little hardwood box which he placed on his superior’s desk.

“Now,” said the officer, “you shall have your fingerprints in a second.”

He drew from the little case a square of plate glass, a little tube of thick ink, a rubber roller, and a few snowy white cards.

Squeezing a drop of ink onto the glass, he spread it back and forth with the rubber roller until the entire surface of the glass was covered to his satisfaction with a very thin and uniform layer of ink.

“Place the four fingers of your right hand upon the glass, thus,” he said to D’Arnot. “Now the thumb. That is right. Now place them in just the same position upon this card, here, no–a little to the right. We must leave room for the thumb and the fingers of the left hand. There, that’s it. Now the same with the left.”

“Come, Tarzan,” cried D’Arnot, “let’s see what your whorls look like.”

Tarzan complied readily, asking many questions of the officer during the operation.

“Do fingerprints show racial characteristics?” he asked. “Could you determine, for example, solely from fingerprints whether the subject was Negro or Caucasian?”

“I think not,” replied the officer.

“Could the finger prints of an ape be detected from those of a man?”

“Probably, because the ape’s would be far simpler than those of the higher organism.”

“But a cross between an ape and a man might show the characteristics of either progenitor?” continued Tarzan.

“Yes, I should think likely,” responded the official; “but the science has not progressed sufficiently to render it exact enough in such matters. I should hate to trust its findings further than to differentiate between individuals. There it is absolute. No two people born into the world probably have ever had identical lines upon all their digits. It is very doubtful if any single fingerprint will ever be exactly duplicated by any finger other than the one which originally made it.”

“Does the comparison require much time or labor?” asked D’Arnot.

“Ordinarily but a few moments, if the impressions are distinct.”

One reason this all surprised me was that I was certain I’d read about Sherlock Holmes using fingerprints in much older stories — but Holmes was ahead of his time, and the stories weren’t quite as old as I’d assumed:

Conan Doyle made Holmes a man of science and an innovator of forensic methods. Holmes is so much at the forefront of detection that he has authored several monographs on crime-solving techniques. In several instances the extremely well-read Conan Doyle depicted Holmes using methods years before they were adopted by official police forces in both Britain and America.

Holmes was quick to realize the value of fingerprint evidence. The first case in which fingerprints are mentioned is The Sign of the Four (1890); Scotland Yard did not begin to use fingerprints until 1901. Thirty-six years later in the 55th story, “The Adventure of the Three Gables” (1926), fingerprints still figure in detection. In “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” (1903), the appearance of a fingerprint is the key piece of evidence in the solution of the crime. It is interesting to note that Conan Doyle chose to have Holmes use fingerprints but not Bertillonage (also called anthropometry), the system of identification invented by Alphonse Bertillon in Paris that pivoted on measuring 12 characteristics of the body. The two methods competed for forensic ascendancy for many years. By having Holmes use fingerprints rather than Bertillonage, the astute Conan Doyle picked the method with the soundest scientific future.

Fingerprints have a long history:

Jan Evangelista Purkinje (1787–1869), a Czech physiologist and professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau, published a thesis in 1823 discussing 9 fingerprint patterns, but he did not mention any possibility of using fingerprints to identify people.

In 1840, following the murder of Lord William Russell, a provincial doctor, Robert Blake Overton, wrote to Scotland Yard suggesting checking for fingerprints but the suggestion, though followed up, did not lead to their routine use by the police for another 50 years.

Some years later, the German anatomist Georg von Meissner (1829–1905) studied friction ridges, and five years after this, in 1858, Sir William James Herschel initiated fingerprinting in India. In 1877 at Hooghly (near Calcutta) he instituted the use of fingerprints on contracts and deeds to prevent the then-rampant repudiation of signatures and he registered government pensioners’ fingerprints to prevent the collection of money by relatives after a pensioner’s death. Herschel also fingerprinted prisoners upon sentencing to prevent various frauds that were attempted in order to avoid serving a prison sentence.

In 1863, Paul-Jean Coulier (1824–1890), professor for chemistry and hygiene at the medical and pharmaceutical school of the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris, discovered that iodine fumes can reveal fingerprints on paper.

In 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds, a Scottish surgeon in a Tokyo hospital, published his first paper on the subject in the scientific journal Nature, discussing the usefulness of fingerprints for identification and proposing a method to record them with printing ink. He also established their first classification and was also the first to identify fingerprints left on a vial. Returning to the UK in 1886, he offered the concept to the Metropolitan Police in London but it was dismissed at that time.

Faulds wrote to Charles Darwin with a description of his method but, too old and ill to work on it, Darwin gave the information to his cousin, Francis Galton, who was interested in anthropology. Having been thus inspired to study fingerprints for ten years, Galton published a detailed statistical model of fingerprint analysis and identification and encouraged its use in forensic science in his book Finger Prints. He had calculated that the chance of a “false positive” (two different individuals having the same fingerprints) was about 1 in 64 billion.

Juan Vucetich, an Argentine chief police officer, created the first method of recording the fingerprints of individuals on file, associating these fingerprints to the anthropometric system of Alphonse Bertillon, who had created, in 1879, a system to identify individuals by anthropometric photographs and associated quantitative descriptions. In 1892, after studying Galton’s pattern types, Vucetich set up the world’s first fingerprint bureau. In that same year, Francisca Rojas of Necochea, was found in a house with neck injuries, whilst her two sons were found dead with their throats cut. Rojas accused a neighbour, but despite brutal interrogation, this neighbour would not confess to the crimes. Inspector Alvarez, a colleague of Vucetich, went to the scene and found a bloody thumb mark on a door. When it was compared with Rojas’ prints, it was found to be identical with her right thumb. She then confessed to the murder of her sons.

Women clerical employees of the Los Angeles Police Department being fingerprinted and photographed in 1928.
A Fingerprint Bureau was established in Calcutta (Kolkata), India, in 1897, after the Council of the Governor General approved a committee report that fingerprints should be used for the classification of criminal records. Working in the Calcutta Anthropometric Bureau, before it became the first Fingerprint Bureau in the world, were Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. Haque and Bose were Indian fingerprint experts who have been credited with the primary development of a fingerprint classification system eventually named after their supervisor, Sir Edward Richard Henry.

The Henry Classification System, co-devised by Haque and Bose, was accepted in England and Wales when the first United Kingdom Fingerprint Bureau was founded in Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan Police headquarters, London, in 1901. Sir Edward Richard Henry subsequently achieved improvements in dactyloscopy.

In the United States, Dr. Henry P. DeForrest used fingerprinting in the New York Civil Service in 1902, and by 1906, New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Faurot, an expert in the Bertillon system and a finger print advocate at Police Headquarters, introduced the fingerprinting of criminals to the United States.

The Scheffer case of 1902 is the first case of the identification, arrest and conviction of a murderer based upon fingerprint evidence. Alphonse Bertillon identified the thief and murderer Scheffer, who had previously been arrested and his fingerprints filed some months before, from the fingerprints found on a fractured glass showcase, after a theft in a dentist’s apartment where the dentist’s employee was found dead. It was able to be proved in court that the fingerprints had been made after the showcase was broken. A year later, Alphonse Bertillon created a method of getting fingerprints off smooth surfaces and took a further step in the advance of dactyloscopy.

There are other reasons why stories are remembered

Friday, February 23rd, 2018

I recently shared an interview with Frank Herbert, where he and Professor McNelly discuss, among other things, why stories are remembered:

Willis McNelly: I have said this to my classes that, in many ways as satisfying as “Dune” is, I find it unsatisfying because there are so many unanswered questions; you don’t tie up the loose ends of, say, Paul’s sister, unless you read…what is it?.. a “Huntress of a Thousand Worlds” (Laughter)…that marvellous little…little footnote of Princess Alia. But… or several other things. The whole question of the Spacing Guild itself and how it got to be the way it was is handled very…you know…

Frank Herbert: Well, let’s…let’s examine something, as far as fiction in general is concerned…

WM: All right.

FH: Now there are other reasons why stories are remembered, and I’m talking about story in the classic sense of the knights who goes from castle to castle to earn his meal.

WM: All right.

FH: Entertainment…

WM: Sure.

FH: The stories that are remembered are the ones that strike sparks from your mind, one way or another. It’s like a grinding wheel. They touch you and sparks fly.

WM: Would this be something like the Miller’s tale of Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, if you please?

FH: Yes, indeed.

WM: Or, well, we could adduce thousands of other examples up to, say, Treasure Island or what you will. There’s sparks there.

FH: OK.

WM: I understand your term.

FH: Now we all have stories that we go on with after we finish reading them. As children, we can remember playing Treasure Island…

WM: Or playing Tom Sawyer…

FH: Or Tom Sawyer…any of these. We remember playing these. The story stayed with us…the characters and their conflicts, their joys, their play all stayed with us.

WM: And it enkindled sparks in our own imagination, so that we were then active in creative play.

FH: That’s exactly right! We went on and told the story ourself…

WM: Yes.

FH: Now, I deliberately did this in “Dune” for that purpose. I want the person to go on and construct for himself all of these marvellous flights of fantasy and imagination. I want him to…you see, you haven’t had the Spacing Guild explained completely…just enough so that you know its existence. Now with lots of people, they’ve got to complete this.

WM: Yes.

FH: So they build it up in their own minds. Now this is right out of the story, though, you see…

WM: Yes. Or the whole…

FH: The sparks have flown.

I found this almost ironic, since I had just watched the first episode of Netflix’s The Toys that Made Us, about the original Star Wars toys, which no major toy manufacturer was willing to produce. Only Kenner was willing to take on the project, because Bernard Loomis recognized how toyetic the new film would be. Millions of kids would go on to play out their own versions of Star Wars, never knowing how heavily it borrowed from Dune.

Give them living eulogies

Sunday, February 4th, 2018

Megan McArdle offers her own 12 rules for life:

  1. Be kind. Mean is easy; kind is hard.
  2. Politics is not the most important thing in the world. It’s just the one people talk about the most.
  3. Always order one extra dish at a restaurant, an unfamiliar one.
  4. Give yourself permission to be bad.
  5. Go to the party even when you don’t want to.
  6. Save 25 percent of your income.
  7. Don’t just pay people compliments; give them living eulogies.
  8. That thing you kinda want to do someday? Do it now.
  9. Human beings are often splendid, the world is often glorious, and nature, red in tooth and claw, also invented kindness, charity and love. Believe in that.
  10. Don’t try to resolve fundamental conflicts with your spouse or roommates.
  11. Be grateful. No matter how awful your life seems at the moment, you have something to be grateful for.
  12. Always make more dinner rolls than you think you can eat.

I’ve been blogging for 15 years!

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

Our Slovenian guest brought it to my attention that I’ve been blogging for 15 years! I don’t have Google Analytics going back to January, 2003, when this site was still hosted on Blogger.com, but I do have data going pretty far back, to December 2005, and my top posts over the years make an eclectic list:

  1. Icelandic skipper kills shark with bare hands (2003)
  2. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics (2008)
  3. A One-Way Ticket to Mars (2009)
  4. Stalin’s half-man, half-ape super-warriors (2005)
  5. Rich, Black, Flunking (2009)
  6. The ‘Israelification’ of airports (2010)
  7. Foux du Fafa (Foux Da Fa Fa) (2007)
  8. He-Man Opening Monologue (2007)
  9. Archetypal Stories (2004)
  10. Myostatin, Belgian Blue, and Flex Wheeler (2004)

It all started as a way to share interesting links with friends and family and evolved into a digital commonplace book. I didn’t plan on accumulating a couple million page views.

(By the way, my first post was Foreign Scientists Are Stranded By Post-9/11 Security Concerns. Our Slovenian guest asked, “Whatever happened to the mentioned Heng Zhu? I hope to find out soon.” Well, a quick search shows that he made it back into the country and into an important position at Johns Hopkins‘ High Throughput Biology Center.)

I suppose this is a good time to ask you, my gentle readers, how did you find this blog? And what keeps you coming back?

Even nomads take snow days

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Modern nomad Aaron Gulley experiences extreme digital detox in the tundra of Siberia:

Alexey lies in his bed of frost-dusted furs, his breath rising in tendrils like woodsmoke.

In the ashen dawn light inside the chum, a reindeer-hide tepee, I watch slivers of snow slip through crevices at the tent’s apex around the stovepipe. Alexey’s wife, Rosa, clambers up from beside him, rips birch bark from branches stored beneath the stove to coax the embers to flame, then steps outside into a maelstrom of snow.

A storm has blown in overnight, a complication for the Nenets, a tribe of reindeer herders who move their animals across Siberia’s frozen tundra twice a year. The 20-person group, six families known as Brigade 20, have been camped in the same exposed spot for three days with about 3,000 reindeer, and the animals have nearly exhausted the forage. They must cross the Gulf of Ob, a 30-mile-wide ice sheet that separates the Nenets’ winter and summer grounds, before the spring thaw. But March has been unseasonably warm, with temperatures hovering around freezing for the past week, and if conditions persist, the crossing could become perilous. Today’s objective is to close half the 15 miles to the southern gulf, but with the tundra suddenly turned opaque with falling snow, that seems unlikely.

“If you want to know the weather,” Alexey says, exiting, “you have to ask the sky.”

Two days earlier, I, along with 11 other paying tourists and three guides, joined the Nenets on a $4,646, ten-day trip that would take us as far away from the comforts of modern life as possible. Our outfitter, a British tour company called Secret Compass that organizes adventures to some of the planet’s most remote places, presented the journey as both an escape from the relentless grind of the West and an immersion into one of the world’s last nomadic cultures. The landscape, a roadless expanse of central Russia above the Arctic Circle, was daunting, but it was the cold that I found most intimidating. During our first night on the tundra, as we headed into the bleak wilderness with the temperature plummeting below zero, I realized that without the Nenets’ guidance, we’d likely freeze to death within hours.

Inside the chum, a few minutes after Alexey goes out to check the weather, I rise from my bed on the ground, slip the reindeer-fur cloak that I’ve been sleeping beneath over my head, then exit through the flap that serves as the front door. Outside, Alexey battles to keep his cigarette lit amid clots of wet snow blasting sideways. He motions me back inside. We aren’t going anywhere. Following Alexey’s lead, I cozy up under my furs. Even nomads take snow days.

42 rules for dealing with Life, the Universe, and Everything

Friday, January 5th, 2018

Jordan Peterson’s answer to What are the most valuable things everyone should know? garnered quite a bit of attention and led him to consider writing a book of his rules, rather than a simplified version of his Maps of Meaning for a popular audience:

  • Tell the truth.
  • Do not do things that you hate.
  • Act so that you can tell the truth about how you act.
  • Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.
  • If you have to choose, be the one who does things, instead of the one who is seen to do things.
  • Pay attention.
  • Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you need to know. Listen to them hard enough so that they will share it with you.
  • Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationships.
  • Be careful who you share good news with.
  • Be careful who you share bad news with.
  • Make at least one thing better every single place you go.
  • Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.
  • Do not allow yourself to become arrogant or resentful.
  • Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible.
  • Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
  • Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.
  • If old memories still make you cry, write them down carefully and completely.
  • Maintain your connections with people.
  • Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or artistic achievement.
  • Treat yourself as if you were someone that you are responsible for helping.
  • Ask someone to do you a small favour, so that he or she can ask you to do one in the future.
  • Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  • Do not try to rescue someone who does not want to be rescued, and be very careful about rescuing someone who does.
  • Nothing well done is insignificant.
  • Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  • Dress like the person you want to be.
  • Be precise in your speech.
  • Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  • Don’t avoid something frightening if it stands in your way — and don’t do unnecessarily dangerous things.
  • Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  • Do not transform your wife into a maid.
  • Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
  • Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
  • Read something written by someone great.
  • Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
  • Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  • Don’t let bullies get away with it.
  • Write a letter to the government if you see something that needs fixing — and propose a solution.
  • Remember that what you do not yet know is more important than what you already know.
  • Be grateful in spite of your suffering.

He thought he’d title his book 42 and include 42 rules for dealing with Life, the Universe, and Everything, but he instead pared it down to 12 Rules for Life.

Here he gives a preview:

His former student, Gregg Hurwitz, included the (older) rules in his thriller Orphan X.