So I’m lying on an hard table in the physiotherapist’s office the other day, where I ended up after wondering if we couldn’t do something about this arm ache that I’ve had for three years, and I’m thinking about voodoo. Because really, there’s not a lot to do in a physiotherapist’s office as you’re staring up at the fluoroscent lights for fifteen minutes while the machines make one specific muscle jump and buzz for you except to think about voodoo. Ultrasound? Light therapy? Acupuncture needles? Are any of these essentially different from having a person with a painted face shake rattles over you and chant the appropriate ritual?

And because I’m a writer and my brain is basically uncontrollable, it wanders off into various by-ways that are none of your business and eventually washes up in a column it has read recently by Jon Carroll, one of the pleasures of the San Francisco Chronicle (even if he does rather go on about the cats.)

He’s talking about the inability of this great country of ours to put into place any kind of central fingerprint data base, due mostly to what he terms bureaucratic infighting. And he’s talking about the Innocence Project (which has a web site, although those of you who have been paying attention know I can’t put the link here because I live in the Mac Ghetto) and goes on to talk about fingerprint technology, and that’s the tie to voodoo, in case you were wondering where this was going.

Remember the old Paul Simon song that talked about the myth of fingerprints? A bit of modern irony, you thought, to juxtapose “myth” with something so hard-edged and undeniably Scientific. As Jon Carroll put it, “In proficiency tests, fingerprint examiners routinely score less than 60 percent in matching prints.” Um, pardon me? On CSI there’s this great machine that whirs and chunters to itself with the prints flashing hypnotically past, and then with a fanfare of trumpets here’s your perp, all wrapped up and ready to go.

Sixty percent?

Subjective analysis, anyone?


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  1. Daisy on February 14, 2005 at 3:53 am

    Actually, you can do links from a Mac, it’s just a bit more of a pain. I found the HTML on the site, and I’ll try to put it in here so it doesn’t come up as a link, but I’m not promising anything. You want to write it like this:
    Where URL is the URL of the site you want to link to and TEXT is the word you want the link to be. Also, take out the two line breaks I put in to keep this from just showing up as a dead link (I hope).
    Hope this helps!

  2. Daisy on February 14, 2005 at 3:58 am

    Okay, that didn’t work. Here’s the link. to the appropriate help page (you have to scroll down a bit.)

  3. M.J. on February 14, 2005 at 1:48 pm

    Oh I came to tell you the same thing Laurie cuase I’m on a mac too. Anyway, see you got the page.

    So I’ll just welcome you to the blogworld! And warn you, writer to writer, you have just entered the world of one more procrastination or distraction from the WIP.

    On the other hand, as one of your fans, I’m thrilled you’re blogging. –M.J. Rose

  4. Anonymous on February 16, 2005 at 6:49 pm

    “Sixty percent”?

    Hm. That does seem significantly less successful than the TV shows would have you believe. Perhaps the fingerprint matchers used in the survey didn’t have a computer to do a point-for-point comparison and analysis for them.

    Or, this seems more likely, the actual print was smudged or otherwise too illegible to be read by the optical scanner when the print was scanned into the data base. It’s hard to determine if the critical feature is a whorl or a tented loop if it just looks like a smear.

    (How many people stand still when getting fingerprinted, anyway? I’m sure the violent offenders are doing their best to be uncooperative.)

    Perhaps the success rate could be improved if someone invented a laser scanner that scanned the prints right off the suspect at time of booking. If we can invent one to read the bar codes off our groceries, then surely we could invent something to scan fingerprints. It would certainly do away with the smudged ink. ;D

    Maer aka “Merely a whim.”

  5. Pat on March 7, 2005 at 9:06 am

    I thought that your information about how inexact fingerprint matching is, was very interesting, but I think that Paul Simon’s song was saying something else. The “myth of fingerprints” is that they are all different. Simon says in the song that he’s seen them and they are all the same; that people are more alike than different. In particular, celebrities are really the same as everyone else. I assume that he is speaking from his own experience in this regard. I love your blog articles – thanks lots! Peace – Pat

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