Wednesday, March 29, 2017

To automate, or not to autormate? First thoughts

A Glimpse of the Future
Automation and robotics have been making a lot of inroads, lately, and the trend seems unlikely to change.

Unless you live in a particular fringe political neighborhood, you're aware that the vast majority of those jobs have been taken by automation designed to boost productivity. According to one study conducted by Ball State University that looked at manufacturing job losses in the US between the years 2000 and 2010, 87% of those jobs went to productivity, but only 13% to trade.


Losing one's job to a robot is far more likely than losing it to workers in Mexico or China. It's not really a new story. As the Ball State study illustrates, it's been going on for decades, and not only in manufacturing. An NBC article from several years ago gave a list of jobs that humans could lose to robots in the near future.


The trend is spreading, inevitably. Sometimes it's a good thing. Astronauts might be sexy, but humans shouldn't be the first things we send to new places in space. I think I speak for many when I say I'm happy to see Spirit and Opportunity go to Mars before people brave its hazards.

A NASA artist's conception of the Mars Rover Spirit.

An argument could be made that automation in certain sectors makes things faster, more efficient, and less error-prone. My husband works in a diagnostic lab where processors and stainers perform many routine tests that once were run by hand. An argument could be made that pharmacy automation might be less subject to corruption or error (though there are many ways humans could take advantage if the system isn't carefully set up and monitored).
This is an automated slide-maker and stainer for a specific laboratory purpose. It delivers consistent results that would be hard to achieve at speed by hand.
But here we start to run into a gray area. There still are things it seems likely robots are a long way from being able to do as well as a skilled, trained human.

My husband, for instance, is still the experienced tech the doctors call upon to quality-check for diagnostic results whenever they do certain kinds of biopsies.

Automated pharmacy equipment from RoboPharma (yes, that's really their name).
The pharmacy robot may be able to package up pills at the speed of light, but how will it do when you need advice about the best cream to use for the persistent itch you have, or which syrup might work best for your baby's cough?

I plan to explore this question in more detail next week.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before It's News for the "future" graphic, the CNN Money for the graph illustrating the Ball Stat University study, and to Electronicsb2b for the photo of the robotic automotive assembly line. Many thanks to the invaluable Wikipedia for the image of the Mars rover Spirit, to Abbot Labs for the photo of their Cell-Dyn SMS slidemaker and stainer and to RoboPharma for the photo of the automated pharmacy equipment.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Double standards and our kids

The Artdog Quotes of the Week 





Here's a double dose of quotable thoughts, this time on double standards, and that touchy subject of how to rear our children. When toy manufacturers still market to "the pink aisle" and "the blue aisle," what's a parent to do?

What creative choices must we make, to empower our children to grow up in ways that help them blossom into their full potential--whatever that may encompass?

IMAGES: Many thanks to the Gender Equality blog, for the Gloria Steinem quote, and to AZ Quotes for the quote from Madonna Ciccone.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Orchestra Dreams

A guest post by my sister,
Gigi Sherrell Norwood


I was raised on classical music.  When everyone else my age was arguing Beatles v. Stones, Jan and I were discussing Bernstein v. Ormandy.  So, when I reached the fifth grade and my teachers asked if I was interested in joining the band, taking up the clarinet seemed like the obvious thing to do.

Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of Gigi's clarinet, or--better yet--Gigi with her clarinet. But it looked pretty much like this (big surprise).
I loved it.  Learning new skills kept me from getting bored in our rural school, and gave me the chance to learn one of the main themes from my favorite symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 4th.  I took group lessons on Saturdays, and later private lessons with my band director after school.  And I began to dream.  Maybe, some day, I would become a professional musician, and get to play with the New York Philharmonic!

I shared my dream with my band director.  He shot it down.  “Girls don’t play in professional orchestras,” he told me.

The all-male truth of 1969 revealed! Only the harpist was a woman.

I was crushed. How could this be true?  As soon as I got home I dug out my copy of Tchaikovsky’s 4ththe one with the picture of the whole orchestra on the cover.  One by one I checked out every single face.  And it was true!  The only woman in the entire ensemble was the harp player.

This was 1969, and the women’s movement hadn’t made it to small town Missouri.  I was still young enough to believe things would always be the way they were at that moment.  My interest in band began to decline.  Why should I work all those extra hours, if the boys were the only ones who could make a career of it?  By eighth grade, when they told me my final grade depended on getting up very early every morning, all summer long, and marching, I was done.  I dropped out of band and switched my allegiance back the theatre, where night owls who can’t tell left from right were more appreciated.

A "blind audition" for the Madison (WI) Symphony Orchestra yields a more objective result.

In the decades since, strong, wonderful women with more pioneering spirit than I, have broken the gender barrier in professional orchestras.  Blind auditions became the standard, concealing any gender cues and placing the auditioner behind a screen, so all the conductor could evaluate was the musician’s tone, musicality, and playing ability.  A whole generation of rigidly sexist artistic directors has died off, and about half the musicians in today’s New York Philharmonic are female. 

A much more recent photo of the New York Philharmonic reveals a changed gender ratio.
But the hurt, and outrage I felt back in 1969 lingers.  It flares up again every time I hear a teacher shoot down a young person’s dream.  And I say, no matter what your creative field, feed the flame.  

If someone comes to you with an impossible dream, remind yourself that it may simply not be possible yet.  

The child with the shining face, who stands before you alight with the glory of her dream, may be the one who makes it possible, sometime in the future.  

Nurture those dreams. We need them. They are the agents of change.

Gigi Sherrell Norwood
ABOUT GIGI: In addition to being my much-admired sister, Gigi Sherrell Norwood is the Director of Education and Concert Operations for the Dallas Winds (formerly the Dallas Wind Symphony), having used her BFA in Directing, her prodigious writing skills, and her lifelong love of music to become involved with a highly-esteemed professional musical group after all. Widow of the science fiction writer Warren C. Norwood, with whom she sometimes collaborated on projects under his byline, Gigi is also a talented writer herself. She is currently working on several urban fantasy stories set in the historic Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, TX. 

NOTE: for another post about a young person's creative dreams shot down, you might be interested in my post, Death of a Purple Elephant, from 2011.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Lark in the Morning's "Clarinets" page for the photo of the clarinet. Many thanks to Amazon, for the photo of the vintage NY Philharmonic album cover, featuring the all-male-except-the-harpist photo of the orchestra's musicians. I am indebted to the Madison.com website for the image of the MSO blind audition. The photo is by Amber Arnold of the State Journal. Many thanks to Bidding for Good, for the photo of a more recent New York Philharmonic, complete with roughly half female musicians. Gigi provided the photo of herself. It is used with her permission.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Reflections on the glass ceiling

The Artdog Quotes of the Week 



I chose a pair of quotes for this week, both addressing, in a different way, the endurance of the glass ceiling in American public life. I am particularly feeling the Maureen Reagan quote in this season of political madness.

IMAGES: Many thanks to The World Economic Forum for the quote from Drew Gilpin Faust, and to IZ Quotes, via Quotes Gram, for the bons mots from Maureen Reagan.

Friday, March 17, 2017

One-of-a-kind Rosa Bonheur

The Artdog Images of Interest


Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, 1860, photo
by André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri  
This has been my week to just miss anniversaries. Earlier this week I missed K9 Veterans Day. This time it's the anniversary of my subject's birth: Rosa Bonheur (born Marie-Rosalie Bonheur) was born March 16, 1822.

In the course of her 77 years, Bonheur became the most famous woman painter of her century, won a long list of honors for her artwork including the Legion of Honor, and shocked a great many sensibilities with her highly original lifestyle.

She was literally born a rule-breaker. Her family, inspired by her father, were Saint-Simonians, followers of a radical-for-that-period socialist political philosophy that held, among other things, that men and women should be considered equals, and all class distinctions should be abolished (of course the group soon split, with one faction unable to accept the idea of female equality). 


Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849, was Rosa's first "big breakout" painting. She had exhibited at the Salon before, but this one was a commission by the state, after she'd won her first gold medal at the Salon.

Rosa never formally studied art (the École des Beaux-Arts didn't even accept women at that time). Luckily for Rosa and the world, her father Oscar-Raymond Bonheur was an artist. He taught all four of his children to be artists, in the tradition of the family workshop. They helped him with some of his commissions, and later helped each other as well. 

Rosa's brother Isidore was a noted sculptor; Rosa exhibited sculpture when she was young, but according to her Art History Archive biography she "did not want to overshadow" Isidore. Apparently she had no such compunctions about overshadowing her other siblings Auguste and Juliette; like her, they were primarily known as animal-painters, or animalières


The Horse Fair, 1852-55, is Rosa's most famous painting. It is an enormous canvas, with a complex composition (she called it her own Parthenon Freize). It secured her reputation as a master of her genre and of painting in general. It now hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rosa may not have studied art in a traditional school, but she definitely studied animal anatomy at schools for veterinarians, and at slaughterhouses in Paris, despite the fact that those were not a "suitable" place for a woman. She even got special permission from the police to wear a smock and trousers when she went there. 


Lion at Rest, 1880, is one of several lion paintings by Rosa Bonheur. The subject is likely of one of her pet lions.

In her lifetime she owned many animals, including several lions, an otter, and of course horses. She received many commissions, including from the French Empress Eugénie (who visited her at her home near Fontainebleu to give her the Legion of Honor). 

Highland Raid, 1860, is one of Rosa's better-known pieces that stemmed from a trip she took to Scotland (she also met Queen Victoria on that trip). The title does not mean the shepherds are stealing these animals--it uses the old Scottish word "raid" meaning "road."

Rosa never married, although she established her studio in Paris with her companion Nathalie Micas, and later in life she toured the United States and lived in France with a younger artist named Anna Klumpke from Boston, who painted her portrait the year before she died, wrote a definitive biography of her, and to whom she left her entire estate.


The Monarch of the Herd, 1867, was one of the paintings sold by her estate after her death. She may have studied red deer at her home near Fontainebleu.

By all accounts, Rosa lived life on her own terms. As in the story about the Paris police and the dress code of the day, she was not afraid to adjust the rules to suit her own needs; while feminism was not a major theme in her artwork, it most definitely was, in the way she lived her life

IMAGES: Many thanks to Wikipedia for the photo by Disdéri, and the images of Ploughing in the Nivernais, and The Monarch of the Herd. I am indebted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the image of The Horse Fair, to Art History Archive for Lion at Rest, and to the National Museum of Women in the Arts for Highland Raid. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Never too late to thank K9 veterans!

Well, darn it--I missed it this year. K9 Veterans Day was Monday, on the 75th anniversary of the founding of the US Army K9 Corps. A couple days off or not, however, it seems reasonable to honor the bravery and sacrifices of the magnificent animals who help keep our nation, and its human defenders, safe.


Dogs have been going to war with their humans for millennia, of course. Sergeant Stubby, of World War I fame, was very far from the first, although his story is pretty cool.


So is the story of Rin Tin Tin, arguably the most famous war dog of World War I, thanks to his subsequent acting career.

Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd Dog--still one of the most popular breeds for Military Working Dogs.

Dogs for Defense was an American Kennel Club-associated World War II program that slightly predated the Army K9 Corps, and helped supply its need for dogs. They accepted a wider variety of breeds than we commonly see today--including Alaskan Malamutes and Collies.

Today, most Military Working Dogs and law enforcement canines are German Shepherd Dogs, Dutch Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois, chosen for their intelligence, aggressive natures, versatility, and athleticism.


I don't know about you, but I think it's interesting that all three breeds were originally developed to herd and protect sheep.

Meet Cairo, the Belgian Malinois who helped Seal Team Six kill Osama bin Laden

The famous Seal Team Six dog Cairo, who helped in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, was a Belgian Malinois. These dogs, which are slightly smaller and lighter-weight than, say, a German Shepherd, are often favored by Special Forces.

Liaka, shown here on the job in Baghdad, is a Dutch Shepherd.

What's a Dutch shepherd? They almost didn't make it through World War II, but now they're one of the three top MWD and law enforcement breeds.

Like most MWDs who are retrievers, Cobo the chocolate lab is a tactical explosives detector.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention the many retriever breeds (especially Labrador Retrievers, as well as Golden Retrievers and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers), which are especially prized for explosives detection. Occasionally other breeds also show up, from Springer Spaniels to Pit Bulls. The onetime favorite breed of the USMC, the Doberman Pinscher, is far less often found on the front lines today.


Whatever their breed, however, we owe them a debt of gratitude! We can make our thanks more tangible by supporting organizations such as Save A Vet, which make sure that once their military service is finished, these magnificent dogs can enjoy their retirement in a good home.

IMAGES: Many thanks to QuotesGram for the "Veterans" image. I am indebted to Wikipedia for the photo of Sergeant Stubby and the poster featuring Rin Tin Tin. I am deeply appreciative to Josh Tannehill for the "I am the Sheepdog" image.
Many thanks to the Fedhealth blog for the photo of Cairo. Many thanks to Gizmodo's cool photo essay on Military Working Dogs for the photos of Liaka, the Dutch Shepherd and Cobo the chocolate Labrador. 
And finally, many thanks to Rebloggy's "Top Tumblr Posts" for the photo of the German Shepherd MWD with an awesome superpower.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A fundamental necessity

The Artdog Quote of the Week 


Kofi Annan has been a consistent voice in the UN, both during his tenure as Secretary General and more recently, for gender equality. From what I can tell, he genuinely views it as an essential part of achieving greater freedom and prosperity throughout the world.

IMAGE: Many thanks to AZ Quotes for this image.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Writing about forensics: blogging a panel

Writing About Forensics
A would-have-been panel for Capricon 37

Capricon 37 was a science fiction convention held February 16-19, 2017 in Wheeling, IL, just north of Chicago. Authors Jen Haeger and Jan S. Gephardt were scheduled to present a panel at the convention called Writing About Forensics.  Unfortunately, circumstances prevented both of us from attending, so all of a sudden the panel had no panelists!

To make up to Capricon for our inability to present the panel at the convention, Jen and Jan have created a co-written blog post, to offer a glimpse of what we would like to have been able to say at the convention. We agreed to post it on our blogs, and send the finished “virtual panel discussion” to Capricon, too, for their use. We hope you enjoy it.

The Panelists:
Jen Haeger
Jen Haeger (Moderator) is a writer geek with a DVM in Veterinary Medicine and a Masters in Forensic Science, though she presently writes part time and works part time at Barnes and Noble. Her published works include a veterinarian meets werewolf paranormal romance trilogy with some forensics in the first book, Moonlight Medicine: Onset. She currently resides in Ann Arbor, MI with her husband.

Jan S. Gephardt
Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and longtime science fiction fan. Her new science fiction novel, Going to the XK9s, is scheduled to be released this year by Durendal Productions. It is the first in a series about a pack of super-smart bio-engineered police dogs who struggle to establish themselves as full citizens, while solving crimes and sniffing out bad guys. To prepare for this novel series, she has devoted much of the last four years to researching, among other book-related topics, police investigational procedures and forensics.

The Questions, and our answers:
1. What is your definition of "forensics"? How does the definition expand or change, when you apply it to science fiction?



JH: My explanation of forensics is the opposite of the scientific method. When you use the scientific method, you start with a hypothesis, then design experiments or make observations to test that hypothesis, and end up with a result. With forensics you already have a result: a murder victim, a contaminated stream, a collapsed building. You then come up with a hypothesis of how that result came to be and do experiments or look at the evidence to try to determine how likely your hypothesis is.

I don't feel like the definition should change when applied to science fiction. If in your story there are people who can just use a device to say, replay what happened at a crime scene without needing evidence, I wouldn't call that forensics.

JSG: In the post-CSI era, I think most laypersons would define “forensics” as established techniques for evaluating the physical evidence of crimes. This would include analysis of images, fingerprints, chemical substances, DNA, blood spatter, ballistic evidence, etc., retrieved from a crime scene and documented according to the protocols of the agency doing the investigation. In each category of physical evidence, standards have evolved, based on systematic observations and more general scientific knowledge.

Unfortunately, in recent years we’ve occasionally discovered that standards of analysis have not been developed with enough scientific rigor to withstand the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. The reliance upon hair-sample analysis before the availability of DNA testing is an example of a formerly-trusted forensic technique that more recently was found to fall well short of that standard.

I think the only way the definition might be changed in science fiction would be a matter of specific techniques for the “list of types of analysis.” An author might extrapolate a new way of analyzing evidence, or speculate that a current technique might be abandoned in the future for some reason.


2. What are some of the problems you see with writing about crime and forensic evidence-analysis "in the future tense"? That is, what are some of the pitfalls science fiction mystery writers might need to consider and try to avoid?

JH: I think that science fiction writers must do research on what is currently available as far as forensic techniques are concerned and build/extrapolate from there if they want to stick to "hard" science fiction. Soft science fiction writers have a lot more leeway. They can just make stuff up and not worry about any pitfalls, but they may lose readers who know what is impossible, like determining the age of a latent fingerprint or time of death down to the minute.

JSG: I agree that any writer should do thorough homework, and I’d include the “soft sf” folks in that caveat. Due diligence helps avoid silly mistakes that can ruin the story for readers who know better. The main pitfalls beyond that are in the area of prognostication: what will be the “DNA-type” revolutionary discovery in the mid-21st Century? We can’t know, any more than people writing sf in the 1970s could have easily predicted using a cell-phone to photograph evidence or analyzing touch-DNA. But it’s fun to guess!


3. How big a role should forensics play in a science fictional crime story, as opposed to other aspects? What other investigation techniques or practices do you think might evolve, and how might they compliment or augment what we now think of as investigational best practices?

JH: Wow, okay, so any other investigation technique could evolve, but if your story is science fiction, I feel that the author should stick to science, i.e. forensic science. That is what the reader will be expecting from a science fiction novel. If the author wants to do character-centered speculative fiction, then they can concentrate on other investigational practices like mind reading during interviews or using super emotionally sensitive people to assess a suspect. There are so many different types of forensics that I'm not sure too many other techniques really come into play in a crime story except maybe interviewing people and profiling, though that may fall under forensic psychology. There is also deduction, but that can't really be used in court.

JSG: I feel I ought to point out that while analysis of the physical evidence has an increasingly important role to play in helping to alleviate that “reasonable doubt,” there will always be a place for “good old-fashioned police work” in an investigation—that is, canvassing for witnesses, getting statements, building timelines, getting eyewitness identifications, etc.

Although eyewitness IDs have been found to be far less reliable in some cases (especially identifications of strangers in crowds or with distractions) than originally thought, it’s pretty hard to beat the certainty of a statement such as, “I’ve known that guy for 20 years, and I saw him shoot so-and-so in the head that night!” A science fiction crime story that ignores the human element (or the “non-terrestrial person element,” if applicable) ignores a huge part of the normal investigational process, and needlessly limits the story-possibilities.

A Belleville, IL officer talks to a member of the neighborhood after a call regarding a gun. Few investigations turn on forensic evidence alone.

4. Forty years ago, DNA wasn’t a consideration in evidence-gathering. Now it has become important in an amazing range of ways, applicable to a variety of crimes. Gaze into your crystal ball and speculate about ONE other potential kind of evidence that might become radically more important, given just the right breakthrough.

JH: Forensic science is constantly making radical breakthroughs. Imaging has made enormous strides recently in areas like crime scene reconstruction (being able to take a 3-D image of a crime scene for later analysis), spectroscopy (developing a sensor to detect date rape drugs), and adding audio to video (by analyzing vibration images).

But I’m going to go with precise time of death which has so far proved elusive.

Artist Jeff Porter visualized Jan's Going to the XK9s protagonist Rex, a "forensic olfaction specialist," and his human partner Charlie
JSG: Probably the biggest breakthrough I’ve extrapolated in my novels is the ability to tap into the sensory capabilities of dogs in much more detail. We know that dogs can be trained to detect everything from bedbugs to cancer to hidden cocaine, but our ability to communicate with them is severely limited. What could they tell us if they could communicate in more detail? How would things change if we could swear one in on the witness stand?

5. In your own work, what have you found to be the most challenging or intriguing aspect, when extrapolating future crime-solving techniques?

JH: I haven't yet done this in my writing. All my fictional forensics is doable at present.

Moonlight Medicine: Onset includes some forensics that are currently possible. It is the first in Jen's fantasy romance trilogy about a werewolf and a veterinarian.
JSG: As I just explained, I’ve been having wonderful fun looking at the recent research on dog cognition and sensory capabilities, then extrapolating ways that we might expand our ability to communicate in more detail with them to learn in more detail what they are sensing. But there are many other areas where we can look at current practice and say, “Wow! If only we could find a way to say for sure if . . . !” My main fear is looking back ten or twenty years from now and groaning, “How could I possibly have missed that we’d be able to do THAT?”

6. Something that a writer might want to consider is whether or not to include any forensics in a crime novel/story. What are some reasons that there might not be any forensic evidence?

JSG: There are lots of reasons why no forensic evidence might exist—even apart from the careful machinations of a criminal mastermind. The investigator might not have access to a crime scene (either can’t locate it, or it has been moved or destroyed) or other crucial evidence (it’s extremely hard to prove there’s been a murder if you can’t find the body, for example). Or perhaps you have the crime scene but it’s been wiped clean (by whatever standards your sfnal setting requires). I bet the other panelists can come up with more.

JH: When writing about forensics it's important to consider why there may or may not be evidence and if that evidence is something that will hold up in court. One of my favorite episodes of CSI is called Jackpot and has Grissom alone in the tiny, isolated Nevada town of Jackpot several hours away from Las Vegas.

In the CSI episode titled JackpotDr. Robbins receives a severed head that sends Gil Grissom on a fateful trip to to Jackpot ,NV.

When he first arrives, all the evidence he has is a head and the townsfolk are all tight-lipped and unhelpful. Then he has his evidence kit stolen and has to buy supplies from the local hardware store to remake some of his evidence collection tools. It is a great example of how, in a small town or isolated place, the characters may not have the equipment or skills to process a scene, even if they find one. Also, I'm not sure if Grissom's makeshift evidence collection techniques would allow that evidence to be admissible in court.

The CSI cast examines the wedding murder
scene in Rashomama.
Another great (and hilarious) CSI episode, Rashomama, has all the evidence the CSI had collected in Nick Stokes SUV and the SUV is stolen before the evidence makes it back to the lab, rendering all of the evidence inside contaminated and inadmissible in court. This is a good example of the necessity of proper chain of custody of evidence and how it may be broken, rendering the evidence lost or useless.

I'd also just like to quickly mention that in today's age of people having at least a CSI level of understanding of forensics, you must have a very good reason for a criminal to leave behind any obvious evidence. Unplanned or heat of the moment crimes are fine, but if someone has planned a murder, you must consider the steps they would have taken to minimize the evidence left behind unless your crime doesn't take place in the present. If it takes place in the past, be very careful not to have police acting like the CSI of today and collecting evidence that there are no techniques yet established for analyzing.

7. Where does forensic science fit into non-crime stories?

JSG: Investigational-style observations could fit into lots of stories. You don’t have to be a trained detective to walk into your boyfriend’s apartment, find two wineglasses, and realize the lipstick on one of them isn’t a shade you wear, to infer he’s been entertaining another woman. Perhaps one of your characters is an amateur graphologist who never does business with someone whose handwriting shows certain characteristics. Anytime a character wants to learn something, there’s an opportunity to use an investigative approach.

JH: This is a good place to talk about all of the different disciplines of forensics. There are so many different aspects of forensics that apply to the environment, to engineering, to computers, to fields like anthropology/archeology, and so many others, that a crime is not necessary to employ forensic disciplines. The following is an almost exhaustive list:

Physiological Sciences
–       Forensic anthropology
–       Forensic dentistry
–       Forensic entomology
–       Forensic pathology
–       Forensic botany
–       Forensic biology
–       DNA profiling
–       DNA phenotyping
–       Bloodstain pattern analysis
–       Forensic chemistry
–       Veterinary forensics


Social Sciences
–       Forensic psychology (human behavior)
–       Forensic psychiatry (evaluations)
Forensic Criminalistics
–       Ballistics
–       Ballistic fingerprinting
–       Body identification
–       Fingerprint analysis
–       Forensic accounting
–       Forensic arts
–       Forensic footwear evidence
–       Forensic toxicology
–       Gloveprint analysis
–       Palmprint analysis
–       Questioned document examination
–       Vein matching


Digital Forensics
–       Computer forensics
–       Forensic data analysis
–       Database forensics
–       Mobile device forensics
–       Network forensics
–       Forensic video
–       Forensic audio
Related Disciplines
–       Fire investigation
–       Fire accelerant detection
–       Forensic engineering
–       Forensic linguistics
–       Forensic materials engineering
–       Forensic polymer engineering
–       Forensic statistics
–       Vehicular accident reconstruction

Many recent, popular police, mystery or thriller dramas on television use forensics as an important part of their stories. For some it is the primary focus, while it plays a smaller role in others.

8. Is the public done with forensics and shows like CSI? Is it still interesting to readers?

JSG: I think in the post-CSI era it’s hard to completely get away from forensics in at least some plot lines of crime stories. Consider that most of the N.C.I.S. franchise include quirky forensic analysts as regular members of the team, for example—and they’re some of the most popular shows on the air right now.

Similarly, Elementary, Hawaii Five-O, and Bones (although the latter is in its final season) all prominently utilize forensics. Moreover, the enduring popularity of crime series such a Patricia Cornwell’s “Scarpetta” novels, built around a character who is an evidence-collecting medical examiner, all would argue that forensics are far from “dead” in crime fiction.

JH: Sadly, I have just recently come to fully realize how obsessed the public is with crime and particularly murder and particularly the murdering of women. I came to this conclusion (that I should have reached long ago) after reading The Girl on the Train (excellent novel and movie by the by) back to back with The Woman in Cabin 10.

For more of my soap-boxing on this subject, please see my previous blog post. But stepping off the soapbox, I think the continued interest of the public in forensics is also evidenced by true forensic shows like Forensic Files and The New Detectives (yes, I'm a real forensics Netflix junkie).

Several long-running reality television shows also focus on forensics.
9. If forensics are so good, why are there any unsolved crimes? What problems with or drawbacks of forensics can make a story more interesting?

JSG: An earlier question that touched on “what if there isn’t any forensic evidence” partially answered this question, in my opinion. Forensics can only address the physical evidence. Such evidence can provide powerful corroboration, but in a satisfying crime story, often the most important element in the investigator’s “holy trinity” of means, motive, and opportunity is the middle one: MOTIVE. That’s usually what lies at the heart of a crime story. Forensics might be able to tell us who, what, when, where, and how, but rarely can do more than point vaguely in the general direction of the WHY.

JH: Though it is true that there are unsolved crimes due to lack of evidence, lost evidence, and contaminated evidence, there are also other hot issues dealing with forensics that can make your story more interesting. How about a forensic scientist skewing or just downright faking the results of a test to get a conviction? How about trying to validate a forensic technique in time for it to be admissible in court? How about taking a fresh look at old evidence with new forensic techniques (consider The Innocence Project)? How about planted evidence? Plenty of great story in the drawbacks of forensics.

10. What is your best piece of advice for authors wanting to write about forensics? Or conversely, what makes you crazy when you read stories where the forensics is poorly executed?

JSG: Ha! My answer is the same for both questions: Do your homework, authors! Especially in our field, it’s essential to check your facts. Anything else just doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny by people who actually know. Who do you think your audience is, anyway? If you're writing sf and your answer doesn’t include a fair number of scientists and scientifically-literate people, you haven’t framed your demographics accurately. Moreover, when it’s crime fiction, you might be surprised how many law enforcement folks are in the audience. This also means, of course, that experts may be more open to helping you get it right than you might expect.

JH: I agree with Jan here. If you are going to write about forensics, make sure to do your homework at least to the CSI-watcher level. That being said, I have several huge pet peeves with CSI:
1) the time it takes to do forensic testing,
2) the fact that they run every test on every piece of evidence collected,
3) the fact that they often work without masks and other PPE when analyzing DNA,
4) they have been shown working on multiple pieces of evidence at the same time,
5) CSI analyzing the evidence also interrogate the suspects, and
6) they often get DNA "matches".

First, it should be noted that some forensic testing takes days or even weeks to do, so make sure that you don't have an inappropriate turn around time. Second, many forensic tests are possible, but very expensive, so typically only the quickest and easiest are done unless it is a high profile case.

Also, not every forensic lab has the latest shiny, new forensic testing machine. Third, my masters thesis required me to analyze DNA and even with the strictest controls and appropriate PPE (hat, gloves, gown, booties, safety goggles, mask), there was still the possibility of contamination. Additionally, as an aside, don't have people talking to each other directly over DNA evidence or while analyzing DNA evidence. Your spit has DNA and you should not speak when analyzing DNA. Fourth, cross contamination.

A crime lab scientist tests evidence from a sexual assault kit. As Jen described in her answer, the woman wears a mask to avoid cross contamination.

Fifth, forensic lab technicians must be as impartial as possible when analyzing evidence. In a perfect world they wouldn't know anything about the crime or the suspects involved so that they could not introduce bias when analyzing and presenting results.

Sixth, okay, so in today's world you can actually genotype an entire human genome from a sample and match it to another entire human genome from another sample. However, this is NOT how DNA testing is typically done, particularly since DNA samples at a crime scene have often undergone some type of DNA degradation (time, heat, chemicals, sunlight, dryness, etc.).

Typical DNA testing compares a small sampling of loci on just a few genes and comes up with a probability that the sample in question (i.e. found at the crime scene) came from the suspect as opposed to another random individual. This gets really complicated really fast, so best just to say "consistent with" instead of "match" (only the pilot episode of CSI gets this right).

Also, again, if you are writing in the past, make sure that you are using forensic techniques appropriate for your story's time frame.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Capricon 37's website for their logo. So sorry I couldn't be there in person, after all! Jen Haeger's photo is from her Google+ Profile page. My photo is used by permission of my daughter Signy, the photographer. 
Many thanks to Hawaii Reporter's article, "Allow the justice system to render the verdicts in violent crimes" for the photo with the evidence bag in the foreground, and to Criminal Justice Degree Link's article "10 Great Criminal Justice Jobs" for the fingerprint-scan photo. 
Many thanks to Reference-dot-com's article "Why is forensic science so important?" for the photo of forensic scientists in a lab, to the Belleville News-Democrat for the photo of the officer talking with the neighbor about a gun report in 2015. 
There is no cover art for Going to the XK9s yet, but Jeff Porter has created a character sketch of Rex and Charlie. The cover for Jen's Moonlight Medicine: Onset is courtesy of Amazon. 
Many thanks to Fandom's CSI Wiki, for the photo from Jackpot, and to CSI Geekromance for the photo from Rashomama. I am indebted to Prisma Dental's article "Your Teeth as a Tool for Investigation," for the forensic odontology image, and to the National Institute of Standards and Technology's article "New Ballistics Control Chart for Forensic Imaging," for the photo comparing cartridge casings.
Many thanks to the CBS TV shows' official websites for the title cards for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Elementary, and Hawaii Five-O, and to Wikipedia for the title card for Bones
The cover images for The Girl on the Train and The Woman in Cabin 10 are from their respective Amazon pages. I am indebted to Wikipedia for the title cards for Forensic Files and The New Detectives, from their respective Wikipedia pages. 
Grins and many thanks to Marche Marie Regan's Pinterest board on Forensics/Criminal Justice for the "criminologist baby meme"(via quickmeme). I am grateful to the National Institute of Justice's "Sexual Assault Kits" page for the photo of the scientist testing evidence.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What is feminism?

The Artdog Quote of the Week


Odd, how consistently it works out that way.

Might note that this quote's author, Rebecca West, was a fascinating and colorful person, well worth learning more about.

IMAGE: Many thanks to Ramweb's "Gender Equality Quotes," for sharing this image. Unfortunately, the original image source, "Coyote's Corner" appears to no longer be there.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Rape culture

In preparing my recent post about the Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, I necessarily spent some time thinking about her experiences with rape and other forms of exploitation (and how she processed those experiences into her powerful paintings), including absolutely outrageous abuse at the hands of the court during her trial.

Artemesia Gentileschi's 1610 painting Susanna and the Dirty Old Men (Okay, so officially it's Susanna and the Elders) eloquently captures how if feels to be ogled as a lust-object.

That, in turn, led me back to "rape culture." All the classic abuses present in Artemesia's case--the minimization of the offense, the victim-blaming, the publicly abusive treatment of an already-traumatized young woman--can still all too often be found in rape or sexual harassment cases today.

What is "rape culture," you might ask? There are variations on the definition, but it all boils down to a culture-wide normalization of violence against women. It's a situation in which every encounter carries the potential for danger.

Cartoonist Matt Bors captured the dilemma in this 2014 panel.

"Normalization" means no one's really that surprised when it happens . . . again. Or that it happens mostly to women, children, the mentally disabled, trans, or gender non-conforming individuals (perceived as "weaker").

It means people make crude jokes about it, even while acknowledging "yeah, it's bad to do that." The asymmetrical balance of power and the pain inherent in the situation can also result in more "sane" humorous takes--with the emphasis on the pain.

Donald Glover offers humor for a moment when "If I can't find a way to laugh I might go crazy." 

It means a cultural norm that allows adults to give children unwanted hugs or kisses and demand that they accept the treatment--thereby training them that boundaries may be transgressed when one party has more power than the other.

On the campaign trail last year Ted Cruz and his daughter Caroline gave us an unintentional example of how even a well-meaning adult can ignore a child's signals. Cultural norms can be insidious when they teach that it's okay to ignore boundaries (such as personal space).

Normalization is a climate in which sexual violence can frequently be portrayed in entertainment media, sometimes as "edgy." All too often, rape-culture-inured audiences find it entertaining in a sexually provocative way.

A still from The Isle, a Korean film that explores some of the darker human passions.
The same line of thought minimizes the transgression and excuses the aggressor: "He couldn't help himself." "She led him on."

Normalization places the onus on the victim to avoid the danger: "She shouldn't have been drinking." "She was asking for it." "She shouldn't dress like that," or "She wore that short skirt." The logical extension of "she should have dressed more modestly" is that we end up in a niqab. (Oh, but those eyes--so provocative! Surely she must be asking for it!) My point? You can never win that argument by giving in to the (il)logic.

Modesty, cultural norms, and a long history result in some women feeling much more comfortable when they are as hidden from others' view as possible.

Another classic line: "She shouldn't have been walking there." Is it really acceptable for there to be some parts of one's own hometown were one feels unsafe? More: is it acceptable for some to feel even more unsafe than others?

Would you  be afraid to walk down this alley by yourself? Or would you walk a much-farther distance to avoid it, even if you were in spike heels? Risk-evaluation is an everyday calculation for many of us. 

After one of the all-too-frequent mass shootings in recent years, I remember reading a letter to the editor of my local paper. The author, a man, wrote about how terrible he thought it would be if (from fear of terrorists) he were afraid to go certain places or wear certain types of clothing (to avoid making himself a target).

"Ha!" I thought. "Welcome to every woman's world!"

Both Margaret Atwood and Gavin deBecker have been credited with an observation that could be used as a chilling summation of how things work, in a rape culture. Certainly it echoes Donald Glover's theme above. They said:


Rape culture: is it really acceptable to live like this?

IMAGES: Many thanks to Wikipedia and the Web Gallery of Art for the photo of Artemesia's wonderful painting, and to Matt Bors and The Nib for the cartoon about the hazards of dating. Many thanks to Donald Glover via Rasheeda Price's "Being a Woman" Pinterest board, for the "crazy boyfriend" joke. For the full story about Ted Cruz and his daughter, I'm indebted to The Daily Caller. Many thanks to Yogesh P. Bhadja's Tikdom.TK post "Cinema" for the still from The Isle. I appreciate the Australian ABC News "Explainer," for the photo of three niqab-clad women (the article that went with it, about traditional types of clothing is also fascinating). Many thanks to The Huffington Post for the "scary alley" photo, from their thought-provoking article, "Visiting a Rough Neighborhood can Influence Trust, Paranoia," and to Boldomatic for the graphic of the Atwood/DeBecker quote.